Building My Relationship With Working Out While in Eating Disorder Recovery


My relationship with working out has most certainly had its ups and downs, the peaks and valleys of which have had an exact correlation with my eating disorder and self-esteem.

I come from an active family; both my parents saw the importance in instilling an enjoyment of exercise and healthy eating, with the occasional indulgence in lazy days and indulgent eating. I was, and still very much am, a bundle of energy. As a child, being able to release what was practically internal vibrations of energy into sports through playing with friends and competition was something I loved. But when my eating disorder started wrapping its claws around me, and all aspects of my life, it also stole away the fun and excitement of sports and being active.

A common term in the eating disorder community for this obsession with working out is “over exercising,” which I describe as an all-consuming fixation on the type and amount of food you put into your body that is not sufficient to match an excessive amount of exercise. I would cancel plans with friends so I could work out in secret without my parents knowing. I would pace on the spot when standing to try to burn additional calories. Exercise wasn’t fun anymore; it had transferred from being a way of expressing myself through competition and play to being another way my eating disorder was enslaving me to points far beyond exhaustion.

I have been in recovery for a long time now, and anyone who knows me can tell you I am ridiculously active and am in love with sports and working out for the right reasons, most of the time. I say “most of the time” is because there is no linear equation for treating a disease and/or mental illness; it takes work, even when you are in a state of recovery.

But, there were some key questions and tricks I asked myself when I first started exercising again that I continue to ask and use in maintaining a healthy relationship with working out.

1. Is your body ready?

This step cannot be emphasized enough. You may feel so ready and eager to get back to the sport you loved now that you’re at a healthy weight, but there may still be some aftermath of your eating disorder affecting your body that only a professional is able to suss out. For me, my eating disorder had led to a heart attack, resulting in me having to get the OK that my heart was strong enough for the exertion it would face through an increase in activity. Another common one for eating disorders is osteopenia or sometimes osteoporosis. Learning your body’s limitations is key; the consequences of not knowing can be dire.

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If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800-931-2237.

2. Are you ready to eat more?

Your calories in have to match your calories out. If your body is physically ready to increase your activity, it’s time to have a talk with your dietician or another professional who will help you maintain that healthy weight needed to do all the fun sports and activities you want to do! When I had been deemed OK to start increasing my activity, the thought of having to eat more was terrifying. I wasn’t ready to start eating more, and I was scared it would lead to me starting to over-exercise again. But being scared is OK, too!

There is no life sentence or time frame when you should be ready; it’s a process that needs to be suited for you. You’re doing what you know will prevent you from relapsing, so kudos to you. There are a lot of great people in your life and resources at your disposal to help you figure out where you are in that process and how to continue moving forward.

3. Baby steps!

Do your best to love and accept your body at its healthy weight for all its magnificence before starting to strengthen it through activities. You’ve already done so much hard, amazing work to get to a place where you are strong enough mentally and physically to start exercising, and you deserve to continue to move in that positive direction.

Set small goals for yourself regarding what you, your professionals, and your support system think are good decisions. For me, I started with wanting to play tennis again, a sport I had given up when my eating disorder started taking hold.

Recap after whatever activity you did, and see how you’re feeling physically and mentally, and appreciate just how strong your body is now that it’s becoming more healthy.

4. Enjoy yourself and your body.

You have come so far and so has your body to get to a point where you can run, play, and do the things you love again, and that is a celebration that never has to end.  Appreciate all your healthy body can do and the joy you can get from its movement. Marvel at your and your body’s ability to bounce back.

It’s exhilarating and euphoric when I feel the muscles in my legs propelling me forward when I’m working out or playing sports in a way that my fatigued and starved body would never have been able to do. I have a healthy body again that allows me to do the things I loved, not because of how many calories it burns, but because it’s fun. I feel ridiculously empowered and have a deep appreciation for what my body has accomplished and how far it has come and what it allows me to do. Whether I’m climbing a mountain with my dad or sprinting to one of my classes at university that I almost always seem to be late for, this healthy relationship with exercise and my body is one I’ll strive to keep.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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Thinkstock photo by Vladmax

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