Disclaimer: This post about exercise is not relevant for everyone in the eating disorder recovery process. I also recognize the myriad of benefits accompanying exercise. There are a lot of benefits in discovering joyful movement of the body. This post specifically addresses those struggling with self-required exercise.
Can exercise be unhealthy?
“Hannah,” I asked myself one morning, “what if exercise was unhealthy?” Ugh, I wanted to hush myself and avoid the question. Yet as I sat on a gym machine one Thursday morning preparing to continue my arm workout, I was hit with the alternative. What if everything else I enjoyed could hold the same label as “healthy”?
I talked to a marathon runner the night before. He shared his love for running was paired with the stress relief the endorphins brought. Similarly, this is the same answer I give myself when I ask myself if I’m running for the eating disorder or true self-care for endorphins.
And as much as I do (sometimes) relish a good run, would I continue if suddenly running was unhealthy? If, for example, walking my dog, beating my sister in Mario Kart (perhaps a fanciful notion, considering my affinity for last place), doodling quotes, exploring bookstores, writing notes to friends, creating new recipes, and sitting under a canopy of trees in the woods burned more calories than running?
If new research suddenly revealed running to have unhealthy side effects. What if hobbies like mine or yours, are encouraged by health experts as the greatest weight loss program? Would my priorities shift? Abruptly, a realization washed over me. For someone with an eating disorder – me, you, your client, or a loved one – exercise may indeed not be healthy.
What to do instead?
Instead, engagement in moments that catalyze true joy could hold greater health benefits. But why? How does this work? My brain, a lover of the black and white answers, that all is either 100% right or utterly immoral, struggles to understand.
In my opinion, the answer lies in the concept of holistic health. Rather than the goal is to fit your physical body into society’s standards, holistic health aims to improve your mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual facets cohesively.
Right now, that means re-reading one of my favorite books may be healthier than performing more crunches. At other points, I may find a run to be a healthy coping mechanism after a rough day.
How do I – we – find that balance, though? Cue the body’s intuition. The signals may be mixed, or even nonexistent at present, but, friends, fight for recovery. Step into the spaces with your support team with a mindset fighting for change. Is this easy? Ha, never. But freedom from anything is a journey. As you take the next step ask yourself, “What if exercise was unhealthy?”