Top Tips for Balancing Exercise in Recovery from an Eating Disorder

Exercise and regular movement does an abundance of good for your mental and physical health. It can help decrease anxiety and depression, build confidence and aid the development of positive body image. But when addressing the role exercise has in the recovery from an eating disorders it’s a tricky one.

Exercise is unlikely to benefit health when it’s fuelled by fear and stress rather than fun. For eating disorder sufferers this is largely the case. Exercise can become a maintaining factor in the illness, a way to punish your body for food you’ve eaten, or “earn” the right to eat.

Unfortunately this has now become a “socially acceptable” form of self-harm, promoted on social media and fuelled by many other “fat-phobic’’ messages in society.

So Should You Exercise in Recovery?

There is not real ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer per say. Recovery is hugely individual, what triggers one person may not influence another.
There are times when exercise is dangerous on the body, like at very low body weights and when you have not eaten enough. Risk of injury, fainting, even fatalities are all common to those over-exercising with eating disorders.

When I was ill I exercised to fulfil my eating disorders demands.
I didn’t enjoy what I did, it was ritualistic, obsessive, and I often found myself in the gym purely based on the demands of my eating disorder; lethargic and under-nourished.

So when I was in recovery, I stopped exercising altogether, for about a year, and then gradually added it in (with some slip ups) as I got physically and mentally stronger 
I wont sugar coat it, it caused a mass amounts of anxiety and fear to begin with.
But I was determined that I would build balance into my lifestyle and enjoyment into my movement.
Taking time off was not going to be forever, just for now, just to challenge the feeling of spontaneously combusting if I didn’t ritualistically work out.

It is through trial and error that we learn to balance our bodies needs in recovery.
We have to test out and challenge our anxious thoughts, and see just what happens when we do what the eating disorder tells us not do to do.

Exercising should NEVER come from a place fuelled by fear, obligation or anxiety.
Rather it should be for fun, from a place of self-compassion and desire to see what your body is capable of.
This can take a while to achieve if you’ve been stuck in this cycle of destructive exercise for a while.
Rest assured you can break free, and I whole heartedly believe with the right support you will.

Top 5 Tips 5 for Balancing Exercise in Eating Disorder Recovery:

Get Social

Grab a friend, family member, or get yourself a personal trainer. Someone who understand the situation, the triggers it could cause, and can keep you accountable so you don’t slip into overexercising and under-eating. Your social environment has such a profound impact on your behaviours and beliefs so prioritising time with people who help recovery over those who choke you is pinnacle. I began by training with m older brother, and he was a superb role model; someone who just ate whatever and worked out if/when he felt liked it. I later joined sports societies at Uni, would gym with friends, go out for meals or cook with my housemates. This all built my confidence and kept my exercise in normal boundaries.

Prioritise Food

Make sure your eating enough to sustain your recovery. If you are being seen by a GP or specialist team seek help from a dietician. You need to remember to not only sustain your recovery diet but also what you need to re-feed yourself and refuel your body so it can recover from workouts. This is the hard part in recovery. So make sure there are people who know about the exercise you are doing and can reassure you with the eating so it doesn’t feel too scary to add in more. Remember, on days where you are less active your diet should remain stable.

Find Joy in Movement

WHY are you are wanting to work out? Do you enjoy the exercise you do? Get creative and fun with working out, develop a new appreciation for what your body can do, instead of just always focusing on altering your appearance. It doesn’t matter what your friends do, or how social media tells you to exercise, if you like dance, then dance. Walking, then walk. ice skating…well you get the picture.
Do what makes you feel good and challenge urges to compulsively exercise.

Focus on Performance Not Aesthetics

This is actually what helped me most. I entered a ‘Tough Mudder; to raise money for MIND, the mental health charity. Having never stepped into a weights area in the gym I began to learn new skills and develop strength I never knew I had. I loved using my fitness to help others, and I developed a new level of respect for what I could accomplish.
There is a body of evidence supporting the use of performance based goals (such as running a race in a good time) over aesthetic based goals (looks) for lowering rates of disordered eating, body dissatisfaction, anxiety and depression.

Prioritise Rest  

As well as being a great outlet for stress, exercise also puts stress onto the body.
Honour your body’s need to rest and recover, even when anxiety bubbles beneath telling you to run a mile. Take at least 3 days off from doing anything. Have alternative hobbies and interests that don’t involve exercise that you can turn to in these times away

Take Home message

You can balance exercise in recovery with support, enjoyment, and self awareness.
Don’t be afraid to step back and take time off.
Be gentle on yourself, these engrained behaviours take a while to challenge.

Rest assured if you are in a difficult place struggling with destructive patterns of eating and exercise that you can challenge them and get to a healthy place where it is once again something you do out of self-love, compassion and respect for your body. .

One Comment Add yours

  1. I relate so much… during the dark days of my anorexia, exercise was basically my way of "purging". It was compulsive, obsessive, secret and it was destroying my body. When I started recovery I was only allowed to do like 5 minutes of yoga… and during the past 2 years I’ve learnt to build a healthy relationship with exercise and it has helped me to recover because it’s made me appreciate how awesome my body is. I focus on treating my body well and giving it all the nourishment it needs. I exercise because I love my body, to build it and not to destroy it. But it’s been a hard journey. Thanks for sharing your story with us 🙂


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