Picture this moment. You are fast asleep when your alarm starts chirping obnoxiously. “Time to GO! GET MOVING” is the label that you had previously assigned to this daily 5:00am reminder. It is a title that you created when you were knee-deep in an eating disorder. A title meant to “inspire” (read: terrify) you into getting your ass out of bed, and onto that treadmill. 

You roll over and hit “snooze.” BAM. Let the mental volleyball match begin.

 “I should just get up. I’ll feel better if I work out.”

“I’m trying to be less rigid though. This feels rigid doesn’t it?”

“It’s not rigid if I want to go.”

“Do I really want to do this? I am so freakin’ tired. What I want is more sleep.”

“Ok put it this way. Nobody wants to get out of bed when it is cold and dark out to go run. But you are one of those rare people who can see the end goal. You’ll feel so good after.” 

“Will I? Will I really feel good? Or will I just feel less guilty?”

“Ok so you’ll feel less guilty. Is that a bad thing? It’s not like you’re running a marathon or anything. You spend a ‘normal’ amount of time in the gym. Harmless. Go.”

“ARGHH” 

End scene with you screaming into your pillow case. 

Sound familiar? Anyone who has struggled with exercise as a piece of their eating disorder can likely relate to this absolutely excruciating inner dialogue.

Exercise is a sticky topic when it comes to eating disorder recovery. Why? Because exercise is widely celebrated as the pinnacle of health. The way our society acts, you would think exercise is the gold fountain of youth and wellness. At any given moment, everyone and their mother is on some kind of “kick.” Pilates classes, barre classes, cross-fit gyms- there is a new workout exploding in popularity every other day. 

Problematically, fitness culture has gotten more and more extreme with it’s increasing popularity. We do not recognize the extremes of fitness as easily we do extremes in weight loss. We praise others for exercising. We are encouraged to exercise through pain. Exercise isn’t done right unless it’s done to the point of exhaustion. We are constantly trying to collectively up the ante- Marathons? Pshhh kid stuff. If you are truly elite, well then you run ultra-marathons. Yoga? Try hot yoga. Spin classes? Well you’re not spinning unless you’re in the classes that allow you to compete publicly for most calories-burnt, right?

All of this focus on and normalization of extreme fitness creates a little problem for those who struggle with compulsive exercise. That is, it is next to impossible to call yourself out for compulsively exercising when society is validating-neigh-celebrating- your compulsion. 

In fact, your therapist may be the only person who tells you that your exercise is an issue. This creates a difficult situation for many who are trying to heal their relationship with food and movement. “Do I listen to my therapist, who is telling me to rest, stay in bed, and challenge my militant exercise mindset, or do I listen to society and get my ‘early morning grind’ on?

The other complicating piece about exercise and eating disorder recovery is that there is no black-and-white rule that can be applied to everyone about movement. For some folks (those who are trying to weight restore, for example), a complete and prolonged cessation of all regimented forms of movement may be necessary. But this cessation is not only reserved for those who need to weight restore. Some people who struggle with very strong, unrelenting compulsive exercise may also need a complete cessation from movement for at least a 6 month period of time. Some folks will not benefit from this cessation. Some will benefit from continuing to exercise but working to change their mindset around it. Some will benefit from changing the type of movement that they are engaging in. Some will need to reduce but not eliminate. And on and on and on. You get the point. Different movement strokes will help different recovery folks (how corny am I? Seriously). 

So this is where the individualized nature of eating disorder recovery comes in. You will need to get very quiet, and get very honest with yourself. Has your eating disorder taken over your relationship with exercise? Has movement been high-jacked and turned into a personal whipping regimine? Ask yourself these three questions regarding your exercise:

  1. Does it exceed what is “normal”? 
  2. Has it caused physical injury/have I ignored injuries in favor of working out?
  3. Has it caused emotional distress in any way? (This means creating guilt, creating inflexibility, forgoing social events to get workouts in, etc). 

The answers to these questions will likely be helpful in guiding you towards understanding the current role of exercise in your life. Truthfully, if your answers are “yes” to any of them, then stopping exercise for awhile would likely be a good next step (If you are looking to error on the side of caution. Like I stated above, this is not a blanket rule, and different things work for different people). This cessation might be limited to a few months, to a year, to multiple years. The main point is to give your body and mind time to break the association between exercise and punishment and compensation. (Additionally, listening to your treatment team is a no-brainer here as well. Sometimes they will be able to provide you with these types of answers when your ED is screaming too loudly for you to discover them yourself. If they say that an extended break from working out is best, it is a pretty safe bet that this is the next best step) 

Another important step for most people will be decoupling exercise from “necessary evil.” This means that you will need to begin challenging your preexisting notions about “needing” to go for that run, or “being bad” for skipping the morning workout. 

In addition to this, you must work to legalize rest. Actively challenge the glorification of busy and exhaustion. You will need to begin trying to take care of your mind, body, and soul. This means listening to your soul when it is saying “I need that dinner out with my friends more than I need that gym sesh tonight.”

Once you have decoupled movement from misery (and once your team had cleared you to begin engaging in movement again!) you can begin to learn about how your body actually wants to move. The best place to start with this is going back to when you were a kid. What did you find fun as a child? Were you an avid jump-roper? Did you take ballet? Tap? Did you adore basketball? Take action in line with those types of movement. Maybe you sign up for an adult ballet class. Maybe weight lifting is your thing. Maybe dance parties in your kitchen are your preferred movement. Maybe you really do love running. Remember, movement preference is completely individualized, and often takes some time to untangle. 

Whatever type of movement you do land on, the important final step is deconstructing the association of this movement with weight loss. Yes, this even applies to people in recovery who have historically said, “I don’t work out to lose weight. I work out to feel good about myself.” I call bull. Why do you think you feel better about yourself when you exercise? Because society tells us that exercise leads to weight loss, which leads to thinness, which leads to complete and total euphoria and a disease-free existence for ever and ever. The end (*insert eye roll here).

Even if you have said that your exercise isn’t for weight loss, your ED voice likely factors the potential side effects of weight loss into your love of working out. It would be next to impossible for this not to be true. SO, your next step, in terms of taking back movement, is to challenge this idea, and strive towards moving exclusively for joy.That’s right. Moving for nothing other than the fact that it brings you happiness. 

Intuitive movement is inherently joyful, but getting there will take a lot of stepping back and asking yourself, “Huh. Did I just hit up that spin class because I wanted to have fun, or was it mainly because I wanted to compensate for yesterday’s meals?” This constant questioning of your motives will likely lead to a whole lot of realizations about just how often you truly are engaging in compensatory exercise. I also suggest having a fair amount of compassion for yourself during this process. Expect to fall down and get back up over and over. It’s not easy to unlearn years of associating movement with weight loss. But it is so worth it.

So, to summarize: the answer to the age old question of “to gym or not to gym” in eating disorder recovery is not black and white. It is a million shades of grey. Please remember- you do not have to like exercise. You are allowed to discover, through the process of healing yourself, that it’s simply not your thang-and that’s ok! But if moving truly is your jam, then you deserve to have a joyful relationship with it. The point it-whatever brings you TRUE joy when it comes to movement- dancing, running, or staying home and chillin’ with your journal- pursue that wholeheartedly and without apologies- throughout your recovery and beyond. 

By Dr. Colleen Reichmann