While exercise is often seen as a way to relieve stress and embrace a healthier lifestyle, people with eating disorders have different perceptions about it. In various eating disorders that fixate on weight and body image, excessive exercise is used as a way to eliminate calories that are consumed so the person can maintain a caloric deficit.
In one study involving patients with anorexia nervosa, approximately 40 percent of participants engaged in compulsive exercise. This is a major reason why anorexia nervosa therapy focuses on changing patients’ perceptions about exercise. Here are a few strategies on rebuilding a healthy relationship with exercise when recovering from an eating disorder.
Pick Up Exercises That Make You Feel Good
People suffering from eating disorders tend to exercise indiscriminately without considering what works for their bodies, let alone whether or not they enjoy it. Exercising itself can be highly triggering for someone recovering from an eating disorder, which is why selecting exercises that re-energize you is important.
It’s crucial to remember that exercise isn’t just about breaking a sweat or having the perfect routine that works for all your muscle groups. In fact, you’re better off taking an invigorating dance class with your partner as opposed to doing a so-called complete and balanced workout.
This allows you to build positive associations with exercise and movement, and you start to see it as more than just a way to lose weight. According to various mental health experts, this is an essential aspect of recovering from an eating disorder.
Exercise With Your Friends or Loved Ones
One of the best ways to start building positive emotions about exercise is to do it with friends or family. For many people recovering from an eating disorder, exercising is still an area where they feel judged and highly vulnerable. Surrounding yourself with people who care about you and creating a welcoming environment can help you build a healthy relationship with exercise.
And there are plenty of ways to do so besides finding a gym buddy. You can sign yourself up for a yoga class and take a parent with you or go on a walk with your best friend. Such initiatives make exercise more than a calorie-burning outlet; they offer an opportunity to strengthen your bond with loved ones and make new memories.
Not to mention, surrounding yourself with people who help alleviate your anxiety will reduce your preoccupation with your own movements and how many calories you’re burning.
Use Healthy Distractions When You Feel Like Compensating for a Meal
Aside from restricting their intake, people suffering from disordered eating behaviours tend to ‘compensate’ for extra calories they consume through excessive exercise. When you’re recovering from an eating disorder, thoughts like heading out for a run to burn off the calories you consumed from dinner can creep up.
In these situations, it’s important to find healthy distractions that prevent you from engaging in unhealthy exercise patterns. You can help your partner, parent, or flatmate clear up the table after a meal, wash the dishes, or sit down to watch a movie. All these are effective ways to avoid overthinking about how many calories you consumed and fight the urge to work out for the wrong reasons.
Recognize Your Need to Exercise Compulsively
Exercise is an important tool to ensure vitality and health, but for the sake of your mental well-being, it’s important that you work out with specific intentions. For most people combatting an eating disorder or coming to eating disorder therapy, these intentions or goals can include feeling better, alleviating depressive thoughts and anxious feelings, and strengthening their body so they can cherish the time they spend with loved ones.
When you feel the urge to start exercising, remind yourself of your renewed intentions and ask yourself why you’re experiencing this sudden need. This is an effective way to set boundaries and reiterate your newfound relationship with exercise.
That being said, you should be able to identify when you experience a need for compulsive exercise. For instance, you may feel distressed when you’re unable to exercise, uncomfortable when you’re just sitting around, or use exercise as a way of purging.
Work With a Trained Professional
Part of eating disorder recovery involves transforming unhealthy relationships with food and exercise, and this is only possible with the guidance and expertise of a certified professional. During eating disorder counselling, you’ll be encouraged to develop an exercise plan that works for you.
Seeing a professional and expressing your feelings about exercise is a good way to build insight and keep track of your feelings. And if you run into potential triggers such as particular exercise equipment or machine, they can guide you on how to manage feelings of anxiety.