Overexercise in Eating Disorder Recovery
Exercise can be a great tool to help you through eating disorder recovery, but my experience has shown me the thin, blurry line between healthy exercise and overexercise in eating disorder recovery. In recent weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic and my mental health fall-out have revealed just how much of my self-worth has been wrapped up in my workouts. It was a sobering realization and one I vowed to change.
The Signs of Overexercise in Eating Disorder Recovery
The signs of overexercise in eating disorder recovery are much the same as the signs of overexercise, period. They include increased anxiety, fatigue, trouble sleeping, moodiness, decreased appetite, depression, being more prone to colds and viral infections, heavy limbs and loss of motivation.1
As I see it, the difference between the signs of overexercise for people in eating disorder recovery and overexercise for the general population is that when you're in eating disorder recovery, not heeding the signs of overexercising can lead to a dangerous--even life-threatening--relapse.
I've experienced the negative consequences of overexercise in eating disorder recovery in full force over the past few weeks. In fact, my whole family witnessed what too much exercise can do to someone's mind and body.
How I Recognized Overexercise in My Eating Disorder Recovery
For over 20 years, the longest I'd ever abstained from exercise was four days. I know this time frame exactly because it was the number of days I allowed myself to recover after the birth of all my children. When the four days were up, I was back to working out. Gradually, at first, but within a week I was lifting weights again and by the end of the sixth week post-partum, I was combining high-intensity interval training with 10 mile runs.
I train six days a week for the most part, though I will drop it to five days if I am feeling really tired and can replace the sixth day with lots of housework and activity with the kids. Otherwise, I work out six days without exception.
I work out on vacations, holidays and birthdays. I don't exercise because it makes me look a certain way; I workout because of the way it makes me feel. Working out has been one of my only ways to keep my mental health in check, so I was relying on it heavily to make me happy--and it did until recently.
I'm used to being sore and tired after workouts, but recently, I'd been so tired and zombie-limbed I could hardly lift weights that were usually easy. Also, I couldn't sleep and I felt enraged at everything. Even though I kept this rage from my kids, it took all my power to do so and spilled out in bouts of uncontrolled sobbing at seemingly small, inconsequential occurrences, like not being able to find the lid for the toothpaste.
I'm not kidding.
My anxiety was through the roof, and even though I took many of my workouts outside in my backyard to try to get more sunlight to boost my mood, the weight of my depression was bone-crushing.
Before turning to freelance writing full-time, I'd been a personal trainer for 10 years. I knew deep down I was over-training but refused to admit it. I operated under the same delusions that kept me in the vicious cycle of my eating disorders for so long: I thought the rules of biology and psychology didn't apply to me. I was obsessed with being better and stronger than everyone else.
Obviously, my plan wasn't working out too well.
Stopping Overexercise in Eating Disorder Recovery
I decided to employ the same tactic that had helped me stop drinking five years ago: I decided to engage in some magical thinking. Logically, I knew that a little time off from working out would be good for me, but in addition to being in recovery from eating disorders I also have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and no amount of rationalization was going to make me feel okay about putting the breaks on exercising.
So, I decided for a week I was just going to believe wholeheartedly that one week was exactly what I needed to start feeling better. I wasn't going to question it. I wasn't going to second guess myself. I was just going to abstain from exercising with the all-encompassing faith that it would work out.
If it didn't, then I never had to do it again.
Long story short, it worked.
A week off of working out didn't solve all my anxiety problems and it definitely didn't make my OCD go away, but I am sleeping better. I am feeling less stressed. I am calmer. This morning, I worked out for the first time in seven days and I lifted heavier and felt stronger than I have in years. I felt and feel amazing.
This experiment in magical thinking has taught me the value of really listening to my body, even if it makes my mind reel. I love working out--that's unchanged and indisputable--but I've learned that if my body is telling me that it doesn't feel like working out six days a week, or even five or four, I should listen to it. If, in a few months, I need to take off another week, that's okay. More than okay, it's part of the balance that will help me create an equally strong mind and body.
Have you dealt with overexercising in eating disorder recovery? What did you do to keep your exercise within healthy limits? Share your thoughts in the comments.
- Medline Plus. "Are You Getting Too Much Exercise?" Accessed April 20, 2020.
Ghadery, H. (2020, April 21). Overexercise in Eating Disorder Recovery, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, May 27 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/survivinged/2020/4/overexercise-in-eating-disorder-recovery