So you’re in recovery from an eating disorder, or disordered eating, or compulsive exercise, and you’ve used and abused exercise as a form of punishment/weight-loss/distraction/control/etc – whatever reason you’ve used it for, it’s come from your eating disorder or disordered thoughts, and it’s well and truly messed up your relationship with exercise. To be fair, with the society that we live in, you don’t even need an eating disorder to have the idea of exercise completely screwed around with and made into something that is a torment. Thanks, society! But whatever has caused your negative relationship with exercise to develop, and whatever you are recovering from, you’re now wondering…am I ever going to be able to have a healthy relationship with exercise again? How will I keep fit and healthy once I am recovered if exercise has such negative connotations for me?
Moving your body in life is part of general well-being, both mentally and physically, but it’s a totally different experience to forcing yourself to the gym five times a week because you want to lose 10lbs or get a six pack. It’s not the same as stressing over being at peak fitness, or worrying that if you don’t do x amount of exercise, you won’t be the healthiest that you could be. It’s about exercise being an enjoyable addition to your life; something that isn’t rigid or absolute, but something to engage in as and when it fits around the rest of your life. Here are 5 things to think about when trying to establish a positive relationship with moving your body:
1. Go Cold Turkey
If you want to change your relationship with exercise so that it is a healthy one, you first have to break your addiction to it. That means stopping exercise entirely. It means totally breaking all your compulsive habits; it means managing the anxiety that goes with that, and it means overcoming that anxiety, in order to be able to develop a totally new relationship with moving your body. You can’t just flow from a disastrous and destructive relationship into a positive and beneficial one without stopping the former, unhealthy relationship, and leaving it behind you before starting to form a new relationship in a totally different way.
2. Traffic Light Your Exercise
The first thing I did when I really got to grips with the reality of my situation with exercise was to traffic light each individual type of exercise. I was in recovery and I was failing in my attempts to cold turkey exercise. I would stop and start, stop and start, and each time I started, I without fail fell back into the addiction. And so eventually I decided that if I was ever going to be able to move my body in a healthy way without the compulsive element creeping back in, I’d have to first recognise that going back to it wasn’t working and that I’d have to cease it entirely for a while, and secondly, that going back to the same type of exercise was setting me up to fail. I decided that I needed to categorise each type of exercise in an honest way in an attempt to recognise exactly when things were headed in the wrong direction. For example, badminton I green-lighted: it’s a sport that I did not play at all when sick and a sociable sport that I enjoy playing. I know that my risk of abusing this is almost nil as I play it for fun with my friends. Walking and swimming I orange-lighted: both had been abused during the time that I was ill with my eating disorder, but are also activities that I take pleasure in. These are activities to keep an eye on; to assess myself now and again to make sure that they are being used in a positive and healthy way. Aerobics I red-lighted. Aerobics is a form of activity that I do not enjoy and used purely as a way of losing weight. I know that if I find myself doing aerobics, then something is very wrong, and I need to address it ASAP. Traffic-lighting your exercise only works if you are completely and utterly honest with yourself, and then continue being honest with yourself when you have your traffic light system. There are no excuses for those red-lighted activities. Those orange-lighted ones are going to be the trickiest to keep an eye on, because it will be more difficult to distinguish when it’s being used in a positive or negative way, and again, that requires 100% honesty from you, to you.
3. Move Your Body in an Enjoyable Way
Find recreational activity that you actually like doing that involves moving your body. This could be taking your kids swimming, walking your dog, riding your horse, or playing footie with the guys. It could mean taking photographs on a country walk, taking a sunset stroll to the pub with a mate, playing rounders with a bunch of friends, or taking part in the annual cheese-rolling contest (no, seriously, we have that here). Find something that is actually about enjoying yourself, rather than about exercise. Find something that is another hobby. This is not about exercise – that is secondary. This is not about changing your body – that is no longer the aim. This is about moving your body and enjoying it whilst you do it. There are no reasons for doing this any more other than pleasure and recreation: this is not about guilt, or burning calories, or altering your appearance. This has to be just another thing in your life that you enjoy doing, that coincidentally involves moving.
4. Don’t Have Set Routines or Rules
Do not get caught in the trap of setting routines for yourself that you find yourself unable to break. You don’t have to play tennis every Thursday. You don’t have to walk to town every time you need to go to the shops. You don’t have to swim 25 lengths every single time you get in the pool. Switch it up. Fit these hobbies around the rest of your schedule rather than fitting the rest of your schedule around moving your body. Try not to make it a priority – because it’s not. There are more important things than physical activity. Do it as and when. Do it because you have a spare couple of hours and you need some fresh air, or to let off some steam. When it comes to making something a set routine, you know as well as I do that they can quickly become compulsive time slots where you feel that you have to do that certain activity, for that certain amount of time. Check in with yourself about how you feel before doing an activity and go with how you feel, not how long you feel you should be moving for. If you feel tired, skip it for today. If you’re sick, skip it for today. And if you are feeling that there is a certain amount of time that you should be exercising for, then you’re probably not ready yet to reintroduce movement back into your life, and should go back to resting, and working on your relationship with healthy movement. When it comes to rules, I’m talking about that little voice that says: “I can eat x if I do a pilates class” or “I can have a nap later if I have an hours walk” or “I can rest all day tomorrow if I do a run today”. No, no, no no no no. If that is what is going through your head, then you need to check out number 1 again and cold turkey your exercise. You need to separate everything from movement food; weight; rest; everything – nothing should be linked with exercise other than the fun of it. If you are setting rules for yourself, you need to continue working through your issues with exercise and how you use it.
5. Assess Yourself…Then Assess Yourself Again
This is so, so, so important to do, and again, requires being transparent with yourself – always. It means checking in with yourself over and over and over again to see how you are feeling about the movement that you are engaging in, and your reasons for taking part in the activity in your life. The more stable your remission, the less you may find that you need to check in with yourself, but this takes time, work and patience, and however firmly you are in remission, you still need to take the time to reflect on the movement in your life and how that is going for you. If you are feeling uncertain about any type of activity that you are doing, then you need to cease it. Challenge yourself now and again to test yourself: can you go a week or two being sedentary? Doing this is one of the easiest ways to see what anxieties arise for you when you take time out and rest up (or even think about doing it), and is one of the easiest ways to identify problem activity. It means acknowledging and working through whatever anxieties you feel if you should feel them.
Really, this all comes down to getting to a place where you love yourself as you are and don’t see exercise as a way to change your body. It comes down to not feeling the need to compromise your health and happiness. It comes down to always being honest with yourself so that you stay within the boundaries of what is healthy for YOU. It means coming at recreational physical activity with a totally different mindset. It means finding what is right and healthy and positive for YOU, and going with that. It means being able to not exercise at all, in order to then exercise in a positive way. It means taking time out whenever you want/need to. It means not having any anxiety around moving your body. It means loving yourself, and loving your body, and it means being free.