If you’ve used exercise as a punishment or calorie burner, changing the way you relate to movement is going to be key part of your recovery. Here, Sian explains how to fall back in love with exercise after an eating disorder.
Building a new exercise regime is tricky for anyone. How do you know which exercises to do, and how often? Do you drag yourself out of bed for an early morning run, or blow off steam with evening pilates? And how on earth do you stay motivated? All of these questions are answerable with a bit of research and experience, but for women with eating disorders, there’s a lot more to work through before reaching that comfortable place. I should know – I’ve been there myself.
As a teenager, I was unhappy with my body. Determined to look like the women in magazines, I changed my dietI’d spend hours on the Wii Fit after school, spurred on by the praise my “healthier” lifestyle was winning me. Before I knew what was happening, I was counting calories, weighing myself several times a day and trying to burn off everything I ate.
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At 14-years-old, my period stopped coming. I had developed amenorrhea, a condition which can be triggered by malnourishment, exercising too much or losing an extreme amount of weight. These are all symptoms of anorexia nervosa, which I was later diagnosed with. Alarm bells sounded in my head as I realised the harm I was inflicting on my body. I was exhausted, isolated, hungry – and still didn’t love myself. I wanted it to stop. With the help of a nutritionist and supportive family, I fell back in love with food and stopped exercising to let my body recover.
Years later I tried yoga. Through this, I realised there was more to gain from exercising than obsessively watching a calorie counter tick up. I was so conditioned to using exercise as punishment that I hadn’t questioned if I was enjoying myself. Motivated by this gentle return to movement, I tried climbing. Climbing is a fantastic aerobic exercise that doubles up as strength training, but this isn’t what kept me going back. Gaining strength and flexibility felt good, but it was secondary to the satisfaction of cracking a difficult route. Challenging my mind and exploring new ways to move was way more fulfilling than scrutinising the size of my waist.
Exercise and recovery
Professionals recommend that individuals with eating disorders cease exercising until they are stable in recovery. This is because unmonitored exercise can exacerbate the negative beliefs of eating disorders, hinder weight gain and cause injury. Even if you have been in recovery for years (like me), a new regime can trigger body criticism and obsessive thoughts such as needing to “earn” food.
With this in mind, how can you develop – and maintain – a healthy relationship with exercise after an eating disorder? “The most important thing is reframing the way exercises are perceived,” explains Hannah Lewin, a personal trainer who works exclusively with women in recovery for eating disorders such as binge eating, anorexia and bulimia.
SHIFTING THE FOCUS
Hannah says that she wants her clients to “stop seeing exercise as something solely for caloric expenditure.” In practice, this means switching gears from restrictive to restorative exercise. Throw out the weighing scales and instead focus on non-aesthetic goals such as “being able to deadlift 20KG or swing a 10KG kettlebell,” Hannah suggests.
Next comes the question of what kind of exercise to do. It’s all very well trying to shift our focus but are some exercises better for people in recovery than others? Hannah recommends prioritising strength and resistance training above cardio. “Resistance training is ideal for people with anorexia because they often have low bone density, while bulimia can cause cardiac, lung and neck issues. This, coupled with the possibility for calorie counting, is why we avoid cardio.”
With those risks in mind, it might seem counterproductive – dangerous even – to include exercise in rehabilitation. While it’s not suitable for everyone, Hannah argues that adding controlled movement to her client’s lives enhances recovery. A 2018 study found that controlled exercise reduces the possibility of compulsive exercise later on. Putting a blanket ban on exercise for somebody with an eating disorder also doesn’t address the root of the issue; it’s not exercise that’s the problem, it’s the relationship that we have with it.
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FINDING JOY IN MOVEMENT
Dr Simone Laubscher, nutritionist and formulator at WelleCo, knows a thing or two about rediscovering the joy of movement; it played a big role in her own eating disorder recovery.
“I used to feel like a lab rat. I’d mechanically pound away on the treadmill while answering work emails, totally disconnected from my body. I wanted to break away so I started going for walks. I’d listen to music and ignore work emails, focusing instead on being in nature,” she says. Enthralled by this, Simone began trying new things, including Zumba. “I was going left while everyone was going right, but it didn’t matter. I was discovering the joy of movement.”
Finding joy in movement is a crucial part of falling in love with exercise after an eating disorder. This may sound vague, but it begins with exercising to care for your muscles and joints, rather than to torture yourself.
Simone says that practising gratitude can also help to change your attitude towards exercise. “Self-love is tricky for girls like us, but it comes down to honouring where you are in your journey. Refuse to fret about tomorrow or beat yourself up over yesterday. Do something that makes you feel good today.”
Simone also suggests building a rough workout plan which allows for adequate rest, as this can “help you to stay accountable and avoid overexercising. If you plan to work out for 20 minutes, don’t go over.”
FIND THE RIGHT PT
Crafting a new mentality towards exercise takes time, commitment and support. If you want to work with a personal trainer, try to find someone who has experience with eating disorder survivors. As gyms are closed right now, you’ll need to go online. Even when the gyms do open, this may be your best bet. “Gyms can be unsafe, intimidating places for people with eating disorders because the assumption is that everyone is there to lose weight,” Hannah explains. To avoid this, she recommends doing your homework about potential PTs. “Go back through their Instagram and look at the language they are using. Does it encourage you to be aggressive with your body?”
Trainers with specialist experience are not common, but they exist. Leah and Carly launched workEDout in 2019, following their struggles with eating disorders. They stress that to find the right PT, you’ll need to have an uncomfortable chat: “Let them know a little bit about your journey. Ask for guidance and support. You will build a more secure and safe fitness space for yourself if your trainer understands your history.”
Recovery is not linear. You may discover something you love and find the ideal trainer… yet still see unhealthy habits creeping back. Pre-lockdown one, I’d get out of breath running for the bus. Now I’m training for a half-marathon, and it feels good. On the flip side, channelling my restless boredom into online workout videos has triggered thinking patterns reminiscent of my eating disorder.
If this happens to you, Hannah recommends taking a few days off to recognise how far you have come in your recovery and reassess. “If you notice yourself thinking you need to work out every day, or do a certain amount of steps and reps, unpack the motivations behind this. Nine times out of ten, it’s your eating disorder talking to you.”
Whatever you chose to do, be gentle with yourself. Lean into the rush of endorphins. Rediscover the childhood innocence of exploration and play. Above all, thank your body not for the way it looks, but for how it carries you through life.
If you’re struggling with disordered eating and exercise behaviours, please visit Beat or ring their helpline on 0808 801 0677 for support. Helplines are open 365 days a year and if they’re busy, try their one-to-one web chat.
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