I was sitting in my dietician’s office, listening to her tell me (for the thousandth – at least) time that something had to change. I’d been in recovery for about 11 years. And while I could reach a point of stability, I could never actually call myself “recovered.” What was I missing? What was I doing wrong? Looking back now it seems obvious- the only thing I hadn’t stopped was working out.
The realization hit me like a ton of bricks: I had to cut out exercise.
I’d been struggling with compulsive exercise for years – almost the entire duration of my illness. During that time, I would eat any meal plan that I was given, do all of the journaling and self-care prescribed to me, and participate actively in individual and group therapy sessions.
The one thing that I was unwilling to let go of? Exercise.
I always had a reason to continue to hit the gym. Despite repeated suggestions from my treatment team to quit, I couldn’t stop.
Working out was my drug of choice.
It made me feel great about myself, it was a stress reliever, and I loved my identity as “the healthy girl.” I never felt like I was going to the gym too much, and I never felt like exercise was negatively impacting my life. After all, how could something that society says is so good for you possibly be bad for me?
Here’s the thing…
First, I had to understand and accept the difference between over exercise and compulsive exercise.
According to my justification, I wasn’t spending hours and hours every day at the gym, so I was fine, right? Wrong.
Although the time I was spending exercising wasn’t considered extreme, it was still disrupting my daily life.
Accept an invitation to go out with co-workers in the evening? Sorry, I have to work out.
Birthday dinner with my fiancé? Have to make sure I get my run in that morning.
Spend the day at my friend’s house because she just had a baby and can’t really go anywhere? Maybe for a while. But then I have to make sure I can get to my 4:00 class at the gym.
My compulsive workout schedule didn’t stop at dictating my social calendar. It constructed my food rules, too.
What I consumed in a day depended completely on whether or not I had “earned” it at the gym. My workouts even dictated which outfits I was allowed to wear in a day. I didn’t trust my body to tell me that it was hungry or full. I did not trust that my body was fine in whichever outfit I chose that day.
Exercise was the control that I thought I needed over my body.
Surrender- I stopped working out
After I made the realization that I was indeed exercising compulsively, I did something that was terrifying and seemingly impossible.
With the support of my therapist, dietician, and fiancé, I surrendered all of my sneakers and my gym tag. I gave up my workouts indefinitely.
Here’s what happened…
The First Week I stopped working out
The first week was loud. The eating disorder voice in my head was relentless. Strains of “Why would you do this? You’re going to get so fat! You’re going to get so out of shape! You are not even going to be able to walk up a flight of stairs! What are people going to think? The healthy girl, the runner? Can you even call yourself those things now that you’ve just given up?” were constantly scrolling through my head.
It made it very difficult to focus on anything else. But I’m incredibly fortunate to have a strong support system. As I voiced my thoughts, I always had someone there to help me debunk my eating disorder’s hurtful accusations and reshape my thoughts.
The first week was by far the hardest, but with help from my amazing supports (and a lot of crying, arguing, and attempted bargaining), I got through it.
One month after I stopped working out
After about 4 weeks of discovering new ways to cope with stress (some of which worked, some of which did not), I had a pivotal light bulb moment: Nothing bad had happened to me.
I still fit in my clothes. I still got up and down stairs just fine. No one made comments about my break from the gym.
I had an appointment with my dietician, and although I was expecting tremendous weight gain, she assured me that was not the case and that my weight was the same. The same!
It was in that moment that I had my third major realization:
Maybe I could trust my body
98 days after I stopped working out
After the first month, I started challenging myself in ways that I never thought I would.
I started listening to my body.
At first, this was very difficult and confusing. If I got hungry, my first reaction was always, “I didn’t do anything today, so how could I possibly be hungry?”
After repeating my ED’s thoughts out loud, I would remind myself that all humans need to eat to survive. Hunger cues are your body’s way of signaling that you need food, just like being thirsty means that you need a drink, and being cold means to put on a sweater. They’re all signals that your body sends, and guilt should not be a reaction to hunger (or thirst or cold).
I started to honor my hunger with foods that would satiate and satisfy me. In that time, I learned that I really like Indian food. And that I feel way better when I put dressing on my salads and that cottage cheese doesn’t really agree with me.
I went out with my friends and tried new restaurants. And I spent more time with my fiancé because I didn’t have to rush to the gym after work or first thing on a Saturday morning.
In short, I felt like I was connecting with people I loved and like I was living the life I truly wanted to be living.
The 99th day
On the 99th day after I stopped working out, it was very nice outside. I drove to work with the windows down, looking at the woods on the side of the road and remembering when I used to go exploring in the woods when I was younger. I realized that I wanted to be outside in nature.
That day I also happened to have an appointment with my dietician. I told her that I really thought I was ready to add some movement back into my life. Connecting with nature and feeling my body move was something I genuinely wanted. I wanted to appreciate what my body could do instead of forcing it to do something it couldn’t.
At the same time, I wanted to honor my limitations (as it turns out, all humans have them) and listen to my body when it asked for exercise. I didn’t want exercise to be a scary thing anymore.
Just like I had to learn to listen to my body’s hunger cues, I had to learn to listen to my movement cues, too.
My dietician agreed, and the next day I went on the shortest, but most enjoyable jog of my life.
Today I’m still working on my relationship with food and exercise. But I’ve come a very long way.
Fear is not a word I use to associate with going out to a restaurant or skipping a workout. Guilt doesn’t bubble up in me when my friend brags about how far she ran yesterday and I brag about how far I got in my current Netflix obsession.
Hunger isn’t a good thing or a bad thing, it just is. Some days I want to move a lot and some days I don’t want to move at all.
Some days I’m really hungry and some days, not so much. I’ve learned to hear what my body needs and respond appropriately.
Warriors, this has not been an easy road. I am extremely fortunate to have amazing supports and an outstanding team help me through the tough times. Although I am not fully recovered (and I DO believe in full recovery), I am the most recovered and the happiest I have ever been.
Giving up exercise to gain back my life is the best thing that I have ever done for my recovery.
It was scary, yes. But Warriors, if you have an inkling of suspicion that giving up exercise might be what you need, you won’t regret it. Remember, nothing bad will happen to you.
Thank you so much for writing this article. I relate to this on so many levels and this article really encouraged me today. You are an inspiration to me!
This was incredibly relatable. Thanks for sharing!
On behalf of your treatment team, we are so proud of you. Thank you for inspiring us to do the work that we do. Bravo!
Thank you so much for this article it relates so much to my situation right now and you wrote it so beautifully. At my worst I would exercise even if I fainted half way through….I would just stand up and continue! I then went cold turkey and now I have exercise back in my life but in a balanced healthy way. I do pilates and yoga and walking because I want to and because they make me feel strong…not to lose wieght! Thanks again and good luck x
Thank you for the amazing article. I can relate I so many ways
Thank you!!!! So much for your article and explaining your experience. I’m currently in so much physical pain due to osteoporosis and I jury to my knee, yet struggling to stop my ritualistic walking and standing despite the agony they cause. If I do rest then it’s so hard to feel I can adhere to my menu plan. Reading this: hearing about your courage, your fears and how you’ve not only survived what you thought impossible, but are so much more liberated because of it has really helped me. I’m going to read your article everyday to add strength to my recovery. I wish you so much luck and happiness. Lu x
Thank you for this. Reading it has changed my perspective on my own exercise behaviours. It has made me consider giving up the gym (although even typing this I find so scary I want to add several hundred caveats e.g. but not running, or climbing, or dancing, or walking). Your strength is inspiring, thank you for sharing a part of your journey and a part of yourself.
This is SO huge for me to read, as without giving numbers, my exercise has been completely out of control for years – never more so than this past year, ironically, a year after five weeks of residential treatment. Just this week I have been cutting it in half, which is still way more than the average person should reasonably do, but I’m proud of that first step. Next week I have to cut it in half again when I start a new contract (I’m a freelancer) that will be full-time hours for a month. I’m an anxious mess, but keep telling myself that I can’t have both a productive life or career and an eating disorder. But even cutting the exercise down a little has been so, so hard. I’m rambling, but thank you for this. It’s truly out of control for me and has taken over my life, my mind, my body, etc. Part of me is relieved I’m reducing it (and felt that way in treatment) but being home, left to my own devices, makes it 100 times harder. Stay strong and thank you for sharing your story!
This and most of your writing really resonates with me! Thank you for sharing. I’d love to connect with you?
This is so inspirational and exactly what I am facing at the moment. I am trying to overcome compulsive walking. The ed persuades me that “walking is not exercise and if I didn’t walk daily I can not follow my meal plan as I would be completely sedentary; so surely my body doesn’t need so much food if I’m sitting all day?”. Can I ask if you cut out walking too, or just the gym?
Hi Lu, your comment resonates with me so much. I am in the exact same struggle with compulsive walking despite my body being tired and weak. I also feel so guilty for eating just as much if I am just sitting all day. The ed convinces me walking is not considered exercise so its fine to continue… All I want is to do nothing but sit, eat, rest, and let my body heal. How are you going with stopping the walking?
Thanks Shannon! I’d be happy to connect 🙂
Hi Luci! Thanks so much for reading my article! Yes, I cut out everything. I cut out exercise during winter in NY (very cold and snowy and windy) and going outside for walks just would not have been enjoyable for me. I kept myself honest. It sounds like your walks are motivated by your ED and not by YOU. Stay strong! Nothing bad will happen!
Thank you for sharing this.
Thanks so much for reading!
Ciao Hanna. Grazie x il tuo articolo. In questi 99 giorni non sei mai uscita a camminare? Cosa facevi durante la giornata? Con cosa hai sostituito la camminata? Grazie
Thank you for sharing your story! I had a stroke 11 months ago after getting Covid at a time in my (young) life when my body was under so much stress and strain from a restrictive eating ED and an exercise addiction that had escalated over four years. When I got sick, my body has no way to protect itself or nourish itself and I kept pushing myself to exercise even though I knew it was dangerous. I was too scared to stop because my ED voice was telling me I would ‘get fat’. In the end, my body just said no. This was the scariest time of my life, I thought I was going to die, but it became the breakthrough I needed to finally get help. My husband and my colleagues step in to get me into out-patient treatment to start working on ME. Due to the Covid and the Long Covid I developed, I wasn’t able to exercise at all while I was in treatment, and this became my greatest blessing. I slowly started to hear my body’s voice again, to listen to it and give it what it needs. Nothing bad happened. I started to realise how exhausted my body actually was, and I started to let myself rest. I am now 11 months into my recovery, eating without guilt and shame (most of the time!) and I haven’t exercised in 11 months either. And nothing bad has happened. I have my life back, I have my health back, I have TIME back, and I have my mind back. Next month will be summer in South Africa, one year after my rock bottom, and I will be able to start to enjoy the things I love again- like swimming and walking and hiking. My body is healing and strong and powerful and I will never take it for granted again. I can now admit that if I needed to not be able to exercise in order to truly recover- I needed to see the obsession in all it’s forms and to face the fears without the comfort of ‘control’. And I have never loved my body more.