This is a question clients often ask us when in eating disorder recovery, and it’s important to note that not one person’s relationship to exercise is the same. What could work for some may not align with another individuals’ eating disorder recovery or needs.
This is why it is crucial to honour your boundaries and pace, and to take your introduction back into exercise one step at a time. Orri’s Sport and Exercise Psychologist, Stacey, offers her specialist advice.
Finding a healthy balance between exercise and maintaining eating disorder recovery can be tricky. In a previous blog, we have explored the relationship to exercise and addiction – how within these moments, we may start to look outside of ourselves as a means of coping. Exercise is one such coping mechanism. Whilst it may look adaptive (helpful) on the outside, it may be covertly maladaptive (harmful) as it develops at the consequence of other areas of our lives. This is why it is important to clock the intention of our exercise with compassionate curiosity.
To help you delve a little into your personal relationship with exercise, Stacey asks some questions below:
- Is exercise always high intense physical activity?
- Do you do this with other people or on your own?
- Is it always measurable? Such as steps, calories burned, reps, time etc
- Are you exercising to compensate for eating or being stationary?
- Do you feel like you have to do it or do you want to do it?
- Are you enjoying yourself when you do it?
- What is the intention behind the exercise?
It is important to identify whether or not the reasons behind exercise are to help you cope with the difficult thoughts and feelings associated with recovery, such as controlling weight changes, compensating for food and avoiding challenging emotions.
If we’re unable to spot the intention beneath the activity, as well as how the activity may be negatively impacting other areas of a person’s life, important opportunities for intervention can be missed. If this is the case there are some significant risks associated with choosing to exercise to cope, including:
- Perhaps becoming reliant/addicted to exercise
- Replacing one eating disorder behaviour with another
- Risk of physical health issues and injuries associated to overtraining
- If you are not getting enough nutrition you may be at risk of REDs (Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport) if you are engaging in a lot of exercise which can have a significant impact on your physical and psychological health
So, what can be done?
First of all, please speak to your doctor/psychiatrist or any medical team you are under to ensure you are medically stable enough to be exercising.
Stacey reminds us that being physically active can improve our quality of life. However, for those in eating disorder recovery especially, she also highlights how fundamental it is to our physical and psychological health that we are able to move in a safe way, so we do not pose as great of a risk to ourselves. Here are things to be mindful of when incorporating physical activity in recovery:
- Be sociable when you are active – join a club or society that provides you with a sense of community, spend time with friends or family members being active
- Be mindful whilst you are physically active and notice what your body is telling you – do you notice any aches, pains or fatigue? Move in a way that allows your body to recover e.g. light stretching or adapting your exercise plan. The risk that may be associated with not listening to when you need to stop or change something may lead to injury or burnout, thus forcing you to stop when you do not want to
- Change up your styles of activity – try something new, join a class you’ve always thought about, dance around your house to your favourite songs, do some gardening or cleaning! There are many ways to be physically active without being involved in formal exercise
- Avoid using pedometers/smart watches/FitBits to track your workouts – this can reinforce beliefs around what is or isn’t enough. The best advice is to ditch the tech and turn off your step counter
- Make your exercise fun – do things because you want to, not because you have to. Go for a walk in the park with your friend because you would like to spend time with them. Join up to your old football club because you miss the enjoyment of playing the game
- Keep an exercise diary and reflect on the thoughts, emotions, body sensations and memories that may arise when you exercise. You can also identify how hard you worked and the intentions behind the exercise. This will allow you to notify any patterns that may indicate whether or not your exercising may be used purely to cope with the challenges of recovery. If you are able to perhaps you can share this with your therapist too
- Slow down – not everything needs to be done at a high intensity and it is important to check in to see what needs you are trying to meet and what you are feeling when wanting to exercise. Feeling anxious/stressed/on high alert – slowed activity e.g. yoga, qigong, slow walk, stretches etc. Feeling sad/lethargic/withdrawn – higher intensity activity e.g. riding a bike, jumping on a trampoline, dancing etc
Now that you have a broader understanding of your relationship to exercise, take a moment to consider other self-soothing activities that are kinder to your mind and body.
Perhaps journalling or meditating can be an alternative expression. If movement really does help, perhaps opt for something gentle like yoga or stretching. By granting yourself time and exposure to explore your Self, you learn to develop an accepting mindset that encourages working ‘with yourself’ in your recovery – as opposed to against yourself. The best thing you can do is to be kind to yourself whilst battling an eating disorder.