Exercise in Eating Disorder Recovery: Helpful or Harmful?

Exercise and eating disorders is a complex grey area.

And the research behind it doesn’t shed much light on whether it is an advisable, therapeutic, addition to recovery. Nor does it specify recommended types, intensities, sessions…etc


Despite having similar symptoms everyones eating disorder is different. Triggers and disordered related behaviours (routines, rituals and rules,) will all vary. It may be that some forms of exercise could be more triggering, or used as compensatory mechanisms, like lengthy cardio sessions in attempt to burn off calories and justify eating.
You see this everywhere, eating disorder or not. It’s widespread in our society, engrained in our belief system, hidden in the language we use, like “burn it to earn it”.

But it’s not as black and white as being right or wrong in recovery. Recovery is personal, one persons trigger may not be another’s, so exercise may be harmless to one and a compulsion to another. There are definitely right and wrong times to add intense workouts back in to your routine, and when working with teams of specialists this should be discussed and planned in to your recovery support.

P O S I T I V E S 

Moderate exercise, under supervision and with medical approval, can be good for replenishing bone density, lowering cholesterol, improve heart health, cognition (brain power) and help increase appetite. All things that when ill can be thrown off balance.
I have spoken before on how empowering I found moving from endless cardio to lifting weights and seeing my body get stronger; it had such amazing impact on me mentally as well as physically helping my weak body heal and my appetite normalise. 

Some forms of exercise, like weight training, may be empowering for someone in recovery. This was my personal experience, as I focused less on punishing my body and more focused on praising it for what it could do. Seeing it go from a state of real weakness to immense strength (well… for me anyway).

N E G A T I V E S 

Exercise may maintain your eating disorder. 

Gym culture can be a breeding site for disordered eating. According to the DSM-V (diagnostic manual of clinical disorders) exercise is listed as a “purging” behaviour sparking a commonly experienced cycle of having to justify eating by exercise, or dragging your achey body against its will to burn off every calorie you have (or haven’t…) consumed. This can actually have detrimental effects to your body and put overload of pressure onto your joints making you prone to injury.

Making sure you can fuel your workouts must be non-negotiable. If needed get supervised help from a registered nutritionist, or work out with friends/family who you can then eat with before/after. Remember personal trainers aren’t trained to deal with clinical eating disorders, although many of their clients probably have some sort of disordered relationship with food and weight, so look for reliable and credited information from people who truly understand your situation.

T O D A Y S    S O C I E T Y 

There have even been more sub-categories added to the Eating Disorder section of DSM-Vl, including Anorexia Athletica, Muscle-Dysmorphia all which coincidently correlate with increased social media usage, and our aesthetic driven culture.

Gym culture is getting better, but there are still ways sly messages socially justify disordered eating and exercise. Phrases like “burn it to earn it”, and  “bulking”,  “cutting”, and many social media “influencers” who promote over exercising as a normal part of life.
No matter how much we try to ignore it these messages all centre around aesthetics and the demonisation of food (or certain foods cough carbs cough) and can highlight insecurities we normally wouldn’t have had bought into our consciousness.

Forming new healthy patterns of behaviours is no quick switch. You really have to stand your ground and stop comparing to others around you (easier said than done), and be honest with yourself when unhealthy motives are driving you.

It’s up to the individual to be self-aware and put the breaks on when exercise crosses the fine line into unhealthy.

Unsure? Ask yourself:

Q: Am i moving out of enjoyment or compulsion?

Q: Will it cause me anxiety if I don’t work out?

Q: Does what I eat depend on what I’ve done that day? Are there certain foods you can only eat on days you work out?

Q: Does my mood change if I haven’t exercised?

In Recovery

I have one rule: If you can’t fuel or re-feed it, you can’t do it.
This was one I had to apply to myself, and it saw my go through stages of over and under exercising, relapsing with anorexia, and being being really obsessive and finally reaching a really chilled out and happy place where I love moving to feel good mentally more than to look good physically.

For me, I had to cut it out in my recovery for about a year. When I got to a healthy place in my body I added it in  s l o w l y.

Thing thats helped me rebalance:

  • Seeking help from professionals, such as personal trainers and nutritionists

  • Accountability with friends and family members

  • Fuelling workouts properly was non-negotiable

  • Setting external goals; such as running obstacle races for charity

  • Saying “no” when I knew my motives were not from a place of compassion (this is hard but having distractions and alternative self-care hobbies is key here!)

  • Following social media accounts that inspired me to find balance and love for my body, and most importantly see value in myself

  • Learning to enjoy being in my own body; how it wants to move, the foods it likes, and acknowledging giving it rest, chocolate and gin as just as healthy as eating spinach and hitting the gym.

   Going with a mate is such a fab way to keep accountable and keep exercise fun!  Me and my girl: @loutritious <3
Going with a mate is such a fab way to keep accountable and keep exercise fun! Me and my girl: @loutritious ❤

It Starts & Ends With You…

The bottom line is: Exercise, of any form, should  N E V E R  be a form of punishment, and you N E V E R have to earn your food.
It takes time, and a real conscious effort, to get to a place where it becomes a celebration of what your body can do, something that you can “take or leave” without fear, panic, or having to rearrange meals.

Wanna know more?