How to Handle Exercise After an Eating Disorder

Society’s View on Exercise

Exercise is seen as this really “healthy” thing within society. We praise each other for fitness goals: steps taken, higher weights lifted, more complex yoga poses mastered, and further distances achieved in our runs. Exercise is not something we simply do for our bodies but has now become the latest investment for our minds and mental health as well.

On the surface, this is an incredibly positive message for those who’ve never had a strained relationship with exercise. Moving your body to support your mood is something I definitely support, but the motivation behind it must come from the right place.

Reality Check

The truth is moving your body can be a truly amazing and pleasurable experience. Or it can feel like punishment if you’re in a bad head-space with food, self-image, and self-worth.

I personally experienced the latter for several years when I was struggling with anorexia/orthorexia and can hand over heart admit I was addicted to movement for the wrong reasons.

How ED Interferes with Exercise

Having an eating disorder changes the way you think. Your mind becomes a check-list of must-do’s and you’re almost convinced that these actions are your true values. On the surface I convinced myself and others that the exercise workouts I was doing were purely for my mood and enjoyment, but the truth is I was still uncomfortable in my changing body and fearful of the physical restoration I so desperately needed.

So what changed?

Did I magically wake up one day and experience radical self-love and acceptance?

Far from it!

Instead, it was a gentle letting go of the movement that no longer served me, and a thinking process that was flawed and perpetuated by diet culture messages. Instead, I focused on my ‘why’, which was rebuilding a life where my head-space could be free from thoughts of food, exercise and my body. All of this took years and was a process of trial and error. But I’ve recounted the main things that helped me below. I hope it might support your own healing journey with exercise.

4 Ways to Cultivate Healing in Exercise and Movement

1. I stopped running like a tiger was chasing me

Previously when I went to the gym, for a run, or even to a yoga class, I only had one speed – all out. I knew long term this was unsustainable so I had to ask myself: how do I make exercise (an activity I really enjoy) one that’s more sensible, respectful to my body and mind, and supportive of my recovery needs?

The answer was to slow down.

2. Make movement more mindful

I started to engage my senses when I was exercising. If I went for a walk, I took notice of what was around me, what the air smelled like, how my hair felt in the breeze, and change in footing under my feet. I would stop to take a picture of something pretty, or to pat a dog that was cute. In essence I became engaged in what I was doing, never rushed and had no expectation of smashing or setting a “personal best”.

3. I stopped when I was tired

This seems pretty common-sense but can be difficult for those who’ve previously pushed themselves to the extreme. I thought tiredness meant weakness, but I was SO wrong. I started to recognise that my body was talking to me and for years I was ignoring the signs that I needed to SLOW DOWN and rest. Subsequently I had days where I had more energy than I’d ever experienced before to think, be productive in other areas of my life, and still enjoy a bit of exercise.

4. I decided to quit the gym

Something I never thought I’d do, but it was a place that never ‘sparked joy’ as Marie Kondo puts it. It always reminded me of the days I pushed too hard and I needed a new environment and clean state to start exercising in a more balanced way again. So, I started practicing Pilates, Yoga, and going for walks instead. Then when I was ready I joined a studio that ran group exercise classes and loved the community environment and friendships I built through that.

This whole process above took me YEARS, but now I can honestly say I have a very healthy and balanced relationship with exercise, and I now move my body to have fun!

When you put in the hard work during recovery over time strict exercise regimens fall by the wayside, your self-compassion grows and you start to move your body because it feels good, not because you have to.

(Last Updated: August 23, 2022)

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1 Comment

  1. says: Ruta

    Thank you! I’ve been recovered for years and recently decided to get back into exercise. It’s been a struggle and sometimes I feel myself reverting back to my old ways of thinking. My inner instinct tells me to push myself to the extreme.

    But I guess I need to shake off those thoughts, thoughts that I am doing this for aesthetics. Need to be mindful and slowly build a new relationship with exercise.

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