How I Found Balance with Exercise in Eating Disorder Recovery

Updated: May 3

Growing up, exercise was a huge part of my childhood. I was the kid who played three sports competitively, five sports leisurely, and always had to be on the go. Both of my parents were college athletes, so I have natural athleticism and coordination that enabled me to excel at pretty much every sport I tried. Soccer? Check. Basketball? Yep. Tennis? Game-set-match. Swimming? Well, I wasn’t fond of getting my hair wet, but it was exercise, and I was good at it so, why not?

When my eating disorder crept into my life at age thirteen, my relationship with exercise drastically changed. It was no longer a fun, social activity but rather an unhealthy, inflexible compulsion. It got to the point where I was exercising four to five hours a day and doing so not out of enjoyment but strictly to burn calories. If I missed a workout or run, I’d feel horrible about myself and default to restricting food to cope. I was eating so little then that I was constantly weak and tired—and still, I couldn’t stop exercising.

It took my treatment team putting their foot down to break the self-destructive cycle I’d slipped into. I was pulled out of Travel soccer, I was banned from running, and my parents made me keep my door open at all times so I couldn’t get away with obsessive crunches and jumping jacks behind their backs. In fact, the only exercise I was allowed to do was going on walks around my block, but considering it was late November and I had very little insulation, I wasn’t too keen on that idea.

I went from having a toxic relationship with exercise to no relationship at all—for five years! Sure, I went on leisurely walks and bike rides (when it wasn’t freezing cold), taught myself basic yoga, and played some casual games of basketful or tennis but that was the extent of it. I thought my days of being an athlete were behind me, just another thing my eating disorder had destroyed forever.

Then, in November of 2019, my family signed up for a membership at a local gym with an indoor track. I was in a better place in my recovery and trusted myself to safely moderate my amount of activity, so I took to walking around the track a few days a week. After a short while, I progressed to jogging. I was awful at first—unsurprisingly, considering how long it was since the last time I ran regularly—but I kept at it, determined to improve my cardio no matter how long it took. And that’s exactly what I did.

The past year and a half has taught me that exercise—in moderation—is truly incredible. In addition to getting me out of the house and helping me stay in good physical health, I’ve noticed a significant improvement in my mental wellbeing since I reintroduced running and other forms of exercise into my life. Exercise releases endorphins, which increase feelings of happiness and euphoria while simultaneously decreasing pain and stress. It turns out my eighth-grade therapist wasn’t just talking nonsense when she told me those walks around the block would improve my mood!

Exercise has also improved my body image. In the years that followed my diagnosis of anorexia, I struggled with body dysmorphia and genuinely believed I was overweight despite all the facts and figures pointing to the opposite. Partly because I’ve been weight restored, meaning I’m in a healthy weight range, for so long, partly due to recent changes in my diet, and partly because I’m exercising more regularly and, as a result, building strength and endurance, my relationship with my body has become much kinder and more respectful. For the first time since middle school, I’m okay with the way I look; many days, I even like it. If you’d have told me in eighth grade that would ever be the case, I doubt I would have believed you.

While running has been the largest—and most surprising—addition to my routine, I’ve recently rediscovered my love of yoga in a new and improved way. Yoga was one of the few exercises I was allowed to partake in when I was sick, so I often did it with the intent of burning calories. I had one routine on a workout app I’d obsessively do over and over again, and it wasn’t until a few months ago when I stopped and asked myself what—if anything—my yoga regimen was adding to my life.

Because I couldn’t really see any benefit, I took a hiatus from yoga. Then, a month or so later, I came across a Yoga with Adrienne video on YouTube and decided to give it a try. I found that I gained much more from the instructor-led format than I ever had from the app, and the variety of videos and routines was a bonus as well. Suddenly, yoga was no longer a chore but rather a time in my busy day when I could take a break, connect with my body and breath, and build strength and flexibility. I’ve been doing approximately thirty to sixty minutes of yoga every day for the past couple of months, and it continues to be both enjoyable and beneficial for my mental and physical health.

All that said, I have to make a conscious effort to stay on top of my personality traits and triggers that could turn exercise into a compulsion again. This means sticking to a schedule, listening to my body, and not pushing myself to run faster and work harder when I’m not feeling up for it. It means eating more to replenish the calories I’m burning; something that was initially challenging but is gradually becoming second nature. It means not feeling bummed or stressed out if I miss a workout but instead understanding that that happens when you’re trying to lead a balanced life.

That’s really what I keep circling back to: balance. The age-old saying that (almost) everything is good in moderation is one I strive to live by from the food I eat to the ratio I strike between work and relaxation to my newfound appreciation and participation in exercise. Of course, it’s easier said than done but when you find that balance, you too will feel much happier and healthier as a result.

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