I’m going to start this post with a disclaimer – I am in no way saying that all exercise is bad for you. Obviously, it can be hugely beneficial to your physical and mental health, provided you combine it with a healthy attitude and a balanced lifestyle. Done the right way, exercise can enhance your life, and really improve your emotional and physical well-being.
However, with an eating disorder, there is a fine line between exercise being a healthy habit, and becoming an unhealthy obsession. I’ve personally had a very up and down relationship with exercise during my illness, going through periods of unhealthy addiction to it.
I’m sure many of you will be able to relate to this, and I hope this will help you to start fighting that voice in your head that’s telling you to get up and go for a run at 5:30am in the rain…when let’s face it, you really don’t want to!
For me, exercise became a compulsion because it was the only way I could justify eating food. In other words, you eat something = you have to immediately burn it off, otherwise it will instantly turn into fat. Also, the more you eat, the more you have to do to burn it off. Sound familiar? It will sound ridiculous to anyone else, and people will tell you that this isn’t how it works…but I know it’s very hard to hear that advice. Because when an eating disorder has a hold of you, it makes you believe things that just aren’t true.
But the thing is…your friends and family are right. That simply isn’t the way it works, and I can tell you that from someone who went from being completely addicted to exercise and had to burn off every single meal, to someone who hasn’t exercised for months and is now going “Oh…it actually makes no difference at all!” Because when I was exercising compulsively every day, I wasn’t keeping myself fit and healthy, like I thought I was. To be honest, I was slowly destroying my body.
I know it’s hard to think about, but just consider for a moment what you’re actually doing. In order for exercise to be beneficial to your health, you have to give your body all the fuel it needs to perform properly, in the form of food. If you burn more calories than you consume, naturally, you will lose weight. But if you are already underweight (and therefore, have no “excess fat” to burn off), your body will start using your muscle mass up for energy instead. So while you think you are building up muscle, you are actually burning it away. I know for a fact that I could feel my body deteriorating when I was addicted to exercise. There was no fat or muscle left on my body, I was weak and frail, and my body did not have the resources to go on all the runs and do all the HIIT workouts I was making it do. I was quite literally burning out, and causing so many physical health problems, that could become life-long if I didn’t try and sort it out.
Apologies, this all sounds rather doom and gloom! I don’t mean it to. It’s just sometimes, I think it’s really important to take a proper look at what you might be doing to yourself. And maybe consider, very slowly, starting to change things up a bit. Because honestly, the damage you could be doing to your body, is just so not worth it.
But as I said, I’m really not trying to say that all exercise is evil and you should never do it again. In much the same way that I talk about trying to rediscover your love of food in a positive way, maybe it’s also time to start rediscovering your love of exercise in a positive way!
Can you remember a time when exercise used to make you feel great? When you’d finish a workout or a run and be buzzing with energy, full of life and happy endorphins, and ready to take on the day? And have you swapped that for exercise making you feel weak, exhausted, and like you’re punishing yourself?
Here are some of my tips for getting that healthy relationship with exercise back!
1. CUT DOWN YOUR WORKOUT HOURS
Right, I’m aware this sounds like an extremely obvious one, and is a lot easier said than done. But if you really want to work towards getting that balance back and having a healthy body again (and come on, wouldn’t that be great??) then maybe give this a try. Let’s say you go on six runs a week, or you go to the gym every day (examples of what I used to do). Do a one week trial period of cutting that down to, say, three runs a week. Or just going to the gym three times. You will feel so much better after these little bursts of exercise (and keep them little!), because you have given your body time to recover, and you will have more fuel available to do it. And at the end of the week…can you see how your body hasn’t changed in the slightest? Or the week after? Or the week after that? And the week after that, maybe something has changed. But not in the scary way you’re thinking of. All that will be different is you will feel a million times healthier, stronger, have so much more energy, and feel so much happier.
2. TRY RELAXING INSTEAD!
Okay, so you’ve cut down your workout hours. Brilliant. But what am I supposed to do with all those spare hours I have now, I hear you say? All those mornings between 6am-8am when I used to go running, or after work between 4:30pm-7:30pm when I used to go to the gym? What do I do in that time now? Well, it’s just an idea…but why not try treating yourself? I’m guessing it’s high time you start giving yourself some love, and looking after yourself properly again. So instead of getting up at 5:30am every morning, why don’t you simply sometimes choose to have a couple of blissful hours extra sleep? Or when you get home, shattered after a long day at work…do you really want to drag yourself off to the gym? My guess is not. So treat yourself instead. Run a bubble bath, read a book, have a glass of wine…personally, I like to do all three of those things at the same time! But honestly, just making a bit of time for yourself will make you so much happier, and your physical and mental well-being will just sky-rocket. And then, because you’re exercising less often, you’ll enjoy it much more too.
3. DON’T FORCE YOURSELF TO DO EXERCISE YOU DON’T LIKE!
Not every form of exercise is for everyone, and it’s really important to find what works for you. I think the key to this is NEVER force yourself to do a form of exercise you don’t enjoy, just because you think it’s “good for you.” Because you will just continue to resent it more and more, and it makes you feel miserable. About ten minutes into my first spinning class, I discovered that this definitely wasn’t for me. In fact, it was absolute hell. I thought I was going to love it because so many of my friends did, but my legs were on fire, and having to endure that feeling for an hour was quite simply not enjoyable! So I didn’t continue with that. Similarly, I don’t think I will ever go back to running on a treadmill at the gym…for no reason other than I find it mind-numbingly boring! I’d literally force myself onto it every day as a form of punishment for what I’d eaten the night before. It was miserable. And then I just thought, hang on….there’s more to life than this. Life is simply too short to be running on a treadmill when you’d rather be in the bath, with a glass of red wine.
4. SWITCH TO LOW-IMPACT FORMS OF EXERCISE
So many people think that exercise has to be so intense and mega-calorie burning for it to be worthwhile, like ridiculously long runs or super hard HIIT workouts. But that’s really not the case at all, and your body would probably hugely appreciate you giving it a breather with some gentler forms of exercise. At the moment, I’ve really got into yoga. I love rolling out my mat when I get out of bed in the morning, and doing a really simple wake-up routine I find on YouTube, or even just doing some nice stretches to wake my body up. I rarely break a sweat, and I honestly feel so much better and more full of energy than I did when I was doing intense workouts. The hardest thing for me about having to give up exercise at the moment is I hate the feeling of having done no movement. So if you’re struggling with that too, maybe give yoga a go. It’s low impact, but you still feel great for having got your body moving. Yoga is also brilliant for your mental well-being and calming your mind. I would highly recommend it to anyone, and there are so many tutorials available on YouTube (check out Madeleine Shaw!)
I really hope this might give you help with tackling your exercise addiction in some way. I understand it’s a very difficult thing to try and fight against, and I‘m still struggling with it too. But now I’m starting to see all the wonderfully positive results of improving my relationship with exercise, both physical and mental, it’s making me want to keep going, which is why I would encourage all of you to give it a go! You are strong enough to do it. Get back that life you want and love.
Love Lucy x