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Can Exercise Have a Place in Eating Disorder Recovery?

Exercise in eating disorder recovery is a delicate issue. Is it possible to find health and balance in exercise without compromising your recovery?

Why wouldn’t exercise have a place in eating disorder recovery? There’s no denying that bodies are designed for movement. In fact, exercise offers health benefits that we need in order to thrive, both physically and mentally. Being active helps us manage stress, boost our moods and feel more energized. It redirects our attention off social media or smartphones, so we can be mindful of how our breathing deepens, muscles contract and bodies function. When used for balance, enjoyment and wellness, exercise is a positive lifestyle choice. But for those of us recovering from eating disorders, exercise could turn into a compulsion.

Exercise in My Eating Disorder Recovery Turned into an Obsession

Eating disorders can shape-shift and take on multiple forms, even during the process of recovery. For instance, although I consider myself “healed” from anorexia, the eating disorder itself hasn’t backed down completely. It just morphs into other behaviors that masquerade as “health”—and one such behavior is exercise (Symptom Switching: When Your Eating Disorder Wears a Costume).          

I persuaded myself to believe there’s nothing erratic or dangerous about my actions, that fitness is a goal worth striving for and that I’m in control of my own wellbeing. But the inescapable truth is that exercise—or my distorted view of it—wielded the control. Exercise became a source of punishment for calorie intake and a method for numbing the anxiety that followed. When I am moving, sweating, and doing, I feel as though I’ve earned the food in my stomach. It’s a warped check-and-balance system that distracts me from the real business of living.

Finding a Safe Balance in Exercise During Eating Disorder Recovery

Most of us who have suffered from eating disorders cringe at the word “moderation.” We mistake it for “limitation,” and our instincts rebel against this idea that we can’t perform an activity which brings comfort and familiarity. But we need to reframe that definition. To practice moderation does not mean enforcing strict, rigid parameters on ourselves—just the opposite.

Moderating the frequency and intensity of a workout revokes the eating disorder’s foothold on the choices we make. This empowers us to find the pleasure in exercise in eating disorder recovery and to move our bodies because it’s gratifying, not a consequence for eating. We can approach exercise through a mindset of balance instead of all-consuming abuse. We can ditch those relentless hours at the gym and bike outside amongst nature. We can engage in other hobbies that our fitness routines never made time for—like crafting, drawing, writing poetry, or learning guitar.

How to Check Our Motives for Exercise in Eating Disorder Recovery

I am not suggesting that we all become sedentary and quit exercising altogether. That’s not a healthy or sustainable option either; but, I do think we should be intentional and honest about our motivations for working out. So when I feel an overwhelming desire to exercise in eating disorder recovery, I analyze the emotions or impulses behind that urge.

I ask myself these questions to determine if my motives are inspired by self-care or triggered by the eating disorder:

  • Do I feel anxious because I’ve been sitting down for the past several hours instead of burning calories?
  • Am I experiencing anger or guilt because I allowed myself even just a few bites of dessert after dinner?
  • Is there a specific body part that I’m dissatisfied with or insecure about right now and wish I could change?

If the answer is “yes,” then I would be exercising for an unhealthy reason, and I need to abstain—for the time being, anyway. The same idea applies to all of us. Exercise in eating disorder recovery is not inherently wrong, but if we overexert our bodies instead of respecting their physical limits, then we cannot trust our motives. Otherwise, we’ll continue staggering on that tightrope between enjoyment and addiction.

Author: Mary-Elizabeth Schurrer

Find Mary-Elizabeth on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and her blog.

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