On Recovery and Exercise: Proceed with Caution

*** Disclaimer: This week’s Self-Care Sunday post covers the topic of exercise. While the objective of this post is to promote a healthy and mindful relationship with exercise, this post may be triggering to those who have disordered exercise habits. ***

While exercise is one of my favorite methods of self-care, I am extremely hesitant in recommending it to others. Although I find that exercise benefits my own mental health, I understand that many people have experience with disordered exercise habits, so a recommendation of exercise may be triggering and reinforce disordered thoughts and behaviors. Available are hundreds of thousands of posts that recommend exercising and explain its benefits. While those are valuable, I’d like to take an alternative, more cautious approach toward exercise.

In the past, my experience with an eating disorder coincided with a distorted exercise regimen. I overexerted myself, running extra miles outside of field hockey practices, on both practice- and off-days. I exercised compulsively and restricted my diet excessively in order to obtain a leaner, seemingly more athletic physique. I wanted to be the best player on the field, but—in reality—my athletic performance suffered as my eating disorder mandated my workouts. Clearly, at this point in my life, a recommendation of exercise as a form of self-care would not have been helpful to me. While I realize that many people have a healthy relationship with exercise, I can never be sure! So, I typically avoid recommending it altogether.

Part of recovering from my eating disorder meant fixing my relationship with exercise. My treatment team, instead of completely eliminating exercise from my routine, placed restrictions on my activity levels. I began my recovery, hospitalized and placed on bedrest. As my health progressed, I was allowed to reincorporate activity into my life. While in the hospital, I earned the privilege of one 30-minute walk per day. With my discharge from the hospital, I was taken off of bedrest, but given no further activity privileges. Field hockey was one incentive that I had in pursuing recovery. While my teammates took on the road to the 2016 state tournament the year before, I was in the hospital. I decided that my 2017 season would be different. I was cleared to play field hockey again without any restrictions. That year, I played through the entire season, and my team made it all the way to the state semifinals.

My relationship with exercise did not heal overnight, nor was it a linear process. From my hospitalization in October of 2016, it took almost two years for me to beat my eating disorder, and with it, fix my relationship with exercise. In my experience, exercise was once as a self-destructive, compulsive activity. Now, it’s back to what it should be: an enjoyable, self-care activity. So, I’ve got a few tips to share with you, if you find that your relationship with exercise needs adjusted.

Be mindful of your triggers. One trigger that I personally have is diet talk. When I walk into the break room and hear my coworkers discussing their diet and exercise regimens, it becomes very easy for me to want to compare my own regimens to theirs. So, I just turn around and leave. It doesn’t need to be a big scene, though. I just find something else to do—literally anything that doesn’t involve diet talk—and go back later.

Recognize exercises that do not serve you. I used to be a runner. I ran A LOT. Sometimes, I thoroughly enjoyed running. But oftentimes, I just ran to burn calories. Under the supervision of my treatment team, I trained for and completed a half-marathon in 2017. After I crossed the finish line, I pretty much stopped running. That was enough of that. I realized that I didn’t love running anymore. Very rarely do I run now, and only when it’s super nice outside. Even so, I don’t go for very long (definitely not 13.1 miles) because running is hard, HA!

Take rest days and consider taking time off from the gym. Setting healthy boundaries on exercise can be super challenging if your relationship with exercise is suffering, but that’s also why it is important to set them. If you’re not sure you can follow through on healthy limits, find someone to hold you accountable: a doctor, parent, friend, workout buddy, etc. If you’re not taking rest days, especially in times when you’re physically sick, there may be a problem. While my accountability used to take the form of a doctor’s order, I can now safely hold myself accountable and am sure to take X number of rest days every week, without needing someone else’s supervision.

Confront any underlying problems. For me, the underlying problem was definitely the eating disorder, which I feel had its own set of underlying problems. Beating my eating disorder also meant fixing the exercise issue that accompanied it. Other underlying issues exist as well, such as susceptibility to societal pressures, poor body image, and so on. If you find yourself struggling to balance exercise, maybe start by asking yourself questions such as “why can’t I allow myself rest days,” “what is my goal in doing this type of exercise,” “what role does exercise play in my life” and so on.

Exercise should be a fun, self-serving activity. Unfortunately, it can be taken to the extreme, which eliminates the fun of it and can be more harmful than helpful. So, especially to my warriors out there who are in the midst of recovery from eating disorders—should you decide to pursue exercise—proceed with caution. If you’re relationship with exercise is disordered, it’s okay to take a step back and fix your behaviors (even though our society praises extreme exercising, you deserve better). And finally, for those of you whose relationship with exercise is rock solid, keep up the good work!

Peace and hugs! 😊

Emma