Is Your Workout in Cahoots With Your Eating Disorder?

I will probably never go running again. And if I’m really honest, it’s highly likely I will never step foot in a gym again either.

I may daydream about the joyful feeling of running on a clear, sunny, 60-degree day–just me and the pavement and that keen sense of boundless freedom. Or sometimes I drive past my gym and might remember the empowering satisfaction that bubbles up inside after a solid workout.

Here’s my truth, though: It only takes a few short minutes of running or stepping or rowing before those positive feelings of freedom and satisfaction are abruptly hijacked by the desire to push and force until I drop dead–figuratively and literally.

From years and years of overexercising or even using “appropriate” exercise to burn up calories, beat up my body, and undo (perceived) weight gain, intense cardio automatically turns on my merciless eating disorder mindset. Despite the best of intentions to workout for the right reasons and in a healthy, mindful way, it’s next to impossible for me to follow through because I can’t resist the pull of my eating disorder.

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Here’s another truth: Recovery doesn’t mean our eating disorder thoughts disappear forever or that we need to be able to do everything in our life as we did before all eating disorder hell broke lose. Rather, an important aspect of recovery is knowing and honoring your limits. It’s about choosing to stay out of the war zones, those situations that turn on hazardous thinking patterns. My war zone, as I shared, is intense cardio exercise.

For a long time, I questioned the strength of my recovery because of my unchanging relationship to exercise. For months and even years I kept going back for more, believing that one day I would sit on the stationary bike and actually not care about how many calories I burned. I would at once get frustrated with myself for “failing” and ride the high of burning off lunch. Obviously, these reactions are incompatible with a sustainable recovery.

They also are red flags, signaling to me that my running sneakers and exercise machines are land mines in my war zone.

I understand now that I can only maintain recovery if I respect my limits and choose not to flirt with the war zones to prove something to myself, my therapist, or others in my support circle. When it comes to things like exercise (versus, say, eating–I’m just saying!), we must empower ourselves to bow out if it’s not helpful. We must not rely on exercise as proof that we are “OK” or “healthy enough.” If it’s not serving you (not your eating disorder, but you), then maybe it’s time to explore other types of exercise and activities. This is not to say you have to give up your “favorite” workout forever, but until it’s not colluding with your eating disorder, a pro-recovery choice would be to stay away from it.

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As you may know from my past articles, yoga is my activity of choice. I have no way of knowing how many calories I burn; I only know how long I practice. Most importantly, however, I know how yoga makes me feel. I am not an eating disorder machine burning up the treadmill belt. Instead, my mind is quiet. I breathe and move and hold on to that sense of boundless freedom without interruption. I sense my strength and confidence in warrior poses, courage in wheel pose, grace in dancer’s pose, openness in triangle pose, peace in hero’s pose, and support in child’s pose.

I fold and surrender, reach and grow, twist and energize.

The only way to know if your workout is in cahoots with your eating disorder is to get painfully honest with yourself. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  • Are you rigid about the workout? Do you have to do it a certain number of times a week for a specific number of minutes in order to feel “safe?”
  • Does your mind go haywire when you workout, meaning is the eating disorder voice driving how long and how hard you push?
  • Do you obsess about how many calories your workout burns?
  • Does your workout dictate how much or how little you are “allowed” to eat?
  • Does your workout feed urges to bodycheck and/or weigh yourself?
  • Do you intuitively know that your workout is a vestige of your eating disorder that you cling to?

I know these are very hard questions and that facing the answers is unpleasant. At the same time, I also know what a relief it is to get “cleared” for exercise by your dietitian or therapist. I’ve been there. If your allotted time working out feeds your eating disorder under the veil of “I am cleared, so I am ok to do this,” then I gently challenge you to try different workouts until you find the one that complements and protects your recovery. Only you know your truth, and I support you in your effort to get super honest, be clear about your limits, and stay out of the war zones.

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