Exercise is one of the best natural antidepressants. In addition to its physical benefits, it also helps with emotional health. However, exercise can also create quite a conundrum for people in eating disorder recovery. When health and fitness are taken to extremes it can be just as harmful as any other eating disorder symptom. While struggling with an eating disorder, excessive exercise is often used as a means of purging. The individual will compensate for what they ate by trying to burn off their calories through these means. This can have devastating physical and emotional consequences on an individual.
During eating disorder treatment, the focus is on a person’s physical self, their thoughts, behaviors and their underlying emotions. In some cases, exercise is initially removed from a person’s daily life, to stop the cycle and begin to heal. It is in this process of healing that the underlying role that exercise plays, can be explored and understood.
Exercise can be slowly reintegrated in a safe manner as a person navigates through their recovery. This can become even more challenging for athletes like, runners, wrestlers, gymnasts, dancers etc. Of course, kids are encouraged to get involved in sports and or physical activities that they enjoy. However, if a child has a predisposition to an eating disorder, in addition to other predisposing factors, certain sports can certainly be the trigger that the disease had been looking for all along. Suddenly something they love becomes life threatening.
Exercise has been an extension of my eating disorder at various points in my life, yet it’s also something I feel helps me in both my mind and body, in a healthy way. Finding the balance in recovery has been very tricky. I love running, working out and most of all, Spartan Racing, but for over a year I had to give all of it up because of a relapse, and I needed that time to heal and work on my recovery. This was extremely difficult because racing was never driven by my eating disorder but working out excessively was. However, that time off was necessary for my recovery and I learned how to incorporate exercise in a more intuitive way. I now work at being more balanced and much more mindful of what drives my exercise. I make sure that I fuel my body properly to give myself the energy and strength that I need to support my workouts, not to burn off and exhaust all of my nutrition. I also remain aware of whether I’m pushing myself to gain strength or is it that nagging eating disorder voice screaming in my ear telling me to keep going. Although those times are less frequent, I know during those moments, it’s important to stop and reset. Although racing wasn’t and isn’t an extension of my eating disorder, I’ve learned to approach them a little differently and more intuitively. I want to be strong, listen to my body and have fun. If that means running a race once or twice per season, then that’s what I choose to do. It’s not only important for me, but also to model for my daughter, who also loves to race in the kids Spartans. I want her to continue to listen to her body, remember to have fun and understand that food is fuel and is necessary for her to be strong and healthy.
We live in a culture where being physically fit is praised and changing the shape of your body is every fitness program’s marketing strategy. It’s shoved in our faces everywhere we go. It certainly makes recovery that much more challenging. Reintegration of exercise looks different for each person in recovery. When I work with clients on this piece, there’s a collaborative effort between myself, and the client’s RD, to focus on helping them listen to their bodies and learn how to move in ways that are more intuitive and support their recovery. Helping them distinguish what they truly like as opposed to what is really driven by their eating disorder is an important part of the process. Education around misbeliefs of the benefits of intense rigorous exercise versus more gentle exercise is discussed and trying different types of gentle exercise is encouraged. I’ve worked with many athletes, and returning to their sport is a process that involves working with them, in collaboration with their families, on paying more attention to proper nutrition, balance, and what drives them athletically. For example, I worked with a patient who gave up dancing completely, because after time in treatment, we discovered it truly was an extension of her eating disorder, Yet, I have another young girl whose love of dance is louder than her eating disorder. Fueling herself properly to dance in each recital and remaining strong is her focus. She is able to identify how pushing herself to run, which at one time she said she loved, is really something she doesn’t like at all and it was just her eating disorder convincing her otherwise.
For parents who register their children in competitive sports, please educate yourself and be aware of the signs and symptoms of eating disorders. Talk to your child’s coach, and see if they share in your concern about the pressures and emphasis on shape, size and diet. In any sport, competitive or not, your child should be enjoying themselves. Finding a coach that focuses on motivation, support and encouragement is more beneficial to their overall success and self-esteem.
Any teaching figure in our children’s lives should be educated on the signs and symptoms of eating disorders. They should also create an environment that allows for disclosure of struggle, with out feeling criticized or penalized. It would be extremely helpful if nutritionists, preferable those that are eating disorder trained, are brought in to educate their athletes on proper nutrition and self-care.
Eating disorder recovery and exercise is a balancing act. However, with an effective treatment team and surrounding support, they can co-exist. Helping clients explore the role that exercise or athletics plays in their lives, and learning how to honor their bodies, the way all of us should, every day, can help create this balance.