Integrating Exercise Into Eating Disorder Recovery

For so many individuals struggling with an eating disorder, exercise can become just another one of the “behaviors.” This can be as dangerous as an addiction or be considered an additional component of the disorder. When an individual enters treatment there is often consideration around exercise: Should this be approved? When? For how long? What about stopping cold-turkey?

Integrating Exercise Into Eating Disorder RecoveryFor so many individuals struggling with an eating disorder, exercise can become just another one of the “behaviors.” This can be as dangerous as an addiction or be considered an additional component of the disorder. When an individual enters treatment there is often consideration around exercise: Should this be approved? When? For how long? What about stopping cold-turkey?

I recall in my own recovery process that reintegrating exercise felt tricky and unknown. At that time exercise had been used solely for the purpose of my eating disorder. I hadn’t been much of a gym-rat before my struggle and therefore learning to reintegrate working out felt too risky, and I avoided it altogether for quite a while. It took years to even begin exercising again, as I had felt so lost, as if it was completely out of the question. Therefore, I’d like to propose 5 tips for reintegrating exercise into your recovery process.

1. What’s your go-to exercise? If in the throes of your eating disorder you find yourself drawn to one particular activity, then the first step in exposure might be to choose another type of exercise. For instance, if running or walking is your main behavior, then perhaps trying slow movement like dance, or even mild cardio would be an option. The idea is not to begin swapping behaviors and for this new activity to replace the old one. Rather, it can be useful to identify trying something new and creating a set of expectations and guidelines around this challenge. For instance, doing it with a friend, setting a time, creating accountability, and/or journaling before and after to see how it felt to move your body in this way.

2. Start slowly. While in recovery it can be tempting to throw oneself back in, full throttle, to the level of exercise previously used. I’ve heard many clients argue that “if I’m eating the full meal plan why can’t I exercise like I used to?” The answer is that exercise and food are not equation based; it is important to go slowly and experience the emotional/mental experience that exercising again might bring about. Are you able to do so for a set amount of time, perhaps recommended by your dietitian, and not go over this time? Do familiar feelings arise like those from when you used to exercise in an inappropriate way? Exploring and collecting evidence toward these and other questions is an important step. Moreover, it is vital to notice what one’s body does when reintegrating exercise. Should the meal plan change? Does this impact your sleep? Does it lead to obsessive thoughts? Going slowly allows for the full processing of the impact of this activity.

3. Know your intention. Why are you exercising at this time? Is it something that allows you to bond with others? Or perhaps to release endorphins? Or could it be a means of escape or manipulation of your body? Answering these questions with a treatment team member/and or by processing yourself or with a loved one can be insightful and allow for adequate planning. If the exercise is a means to an end around food/weight manipulation then additional support before starting to do so again is recommended.

4. Don’t label. Exercise should not be considered good or bad, just as there is no good or bad food. If anything, it is important to keep the body and mind strong and healthy and mild exercise can be enjoyable and helpful. I’ve encountered many clients who report never having exercised and being fearful of doing so, should it become “another behavior.” It is important to work with your team to discuss any fears around exercising whether it be for the first time, or reintegration. Just as we strive to accomplish a gray area or middle ground with food, so too with exercise.

5. Have some fun. Moving your body can be a spiritual, fun, and rewarding experience. And this reward has nothing to do with shape or size. Rather, it can bring our souls closer to our bodies when we move in a manner that allows for enjoyment and expression. So find something fun to do! Do it with a group! Focus less on how your body looks and more on how your body and soul, as a combined force, feel while exercising.

Just as your relationship with food will become normalized and mindful, so too exercise become normalized and mindful as well. It is important to discuss consideration of exercise with your team and to determine when and how to do so. The process of recovery is one that will allow for re-connection and enjoyment of food and exercise, as well as re-connection and enjoyment of all that life has to offer.

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