Category Archives: exercise

5 Ways to Manage Exercise In Remission From An Eating Disorder

loving-yourself

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.

body-positive

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.

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Exercise (pt 1): Is it Part of Your Healthy Lifestyle, or Are You Waging War on Your Body?

personal-exercise

My first ever blog post was on the dangers of exercise addiction, but I wanted to reboot this topic and do it over in two parts, focusing more on exercise in recovery from an eating disorder (in part 2), as well as exercise in the general community (part 1 right here), and the effects it can have on both sets of people.

Exercise is something that those with eating disorders use and abuse to lose weight, change their bodies, and deal with negative thoughts and feelings in a negative and unhealthy way, but it is also something that has become a toxic part of many people’s lives in the community at large. It has become something that is unhealthy for many people who are engaging in it.

“Exercise…unhealthy?!” you gasp in disbelief, “How can something that is clearly part of a healthy lifestyle be a problem?”

The issue with exercise in our society now is the way people exercise. The issue is why people exercise. The issues are the mentality: the thoughts and feelings behind what is driving someone to exercise, and the outcome that they are looking for.

If you look around at the media, at health food blogs, at doctors recommendations, at magazines, books, and website articles, then you will see that women primarily, but also men too, are constantly being told that they should be exercising in order to lose weight or become toned, or in some way alter the way that their bodies look. I frequently see my friends updating their Facebook statuses letting us all know they have had an intense session at the gym, or tweeting about how they don’t want to go out for a run because it’s cold but that they need to. I see “healthy” lifestyles which include clean eating (eliminating all processed foods and extra additives from your diet, and only eating whole, unrefined foods) and regular exercise all over blogging sites. I can’t seem to avoid fitspo. Society has become obsessed with it.

There are people who genuinely enjoy the physical activities that they pursue as hobbies. There are people who don’t like the physical activities that they choose to do but feel that the results are worth it.  There are people who cannot stand to do the physical activity that they force themselves to do but feel like they have to do it because of whatever the driving force behind their exercise is – which is usually body hatred.

In my opinion, only the first of the three types of active people that I mentioned should be exercising. The others should cease exercise and heal their relationships with their bodies and themselves before resuming any physical activity. They should find physical activities that they genuinely enjoy that are primarily focused on having fun and/or socialising rather than changing the way their bodies look.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not condoning a lifestyle of sitting on the couch eating Chinese takeaways and playing videogames forever after (but if that’s what makes you happy, by all means, go for it! No judgements made), as I believe movement is part of a healthy lifestyle, but I do not think that anyone should be forcing themselves to do a workout that they don’t find any enjoyment in. I do not think that anyone should be wasting time engaging in activities that they do want to do purely because they are driven by a society telling them that their bodies are not good enough as they are and/or that they are lazy and unhealthy if they do not engage in x amount of physical activity doing certain types of exercise.

“I really don’t want to go the gym today, but I know I need to/have to/should,” is a common comment that I hear from colleagues, friends, and strangers, and this is a result of the insidious and toxic system that is diet culture. Nobody has an obligation to engage in physical activities that they don’t enjoy. Nobody should.  These days we see exercise as something we don’t want to do, but something that we have to do. Doctor’s orders. Exercise has become something we associate with gyms and aerobics and gruelling runs, which most people don’t really enjoy. We’ve lost touch of recreational activity: doing things that we enjoy that involves physical activity. The enjoyment part is primary, and the activity secondary.

Being active is great, but only when you have found something that you actually enjoy. This could just be leisurely strolls through the countryside, or hikes in the hills. This could be swimming with your kids, or challenging a friend to a few badminton games. This could be finding a team sport that makes your heart race and your grin wide. It could be practising mindfulness through yoga, or getting competitive with a colleague whilst playing squash. This could be once a week or once a day. Whatever makes you happy. Not whatever makes you lose weight, or whatever gives you abs. Not whatever gives you a tiny waist or bulging arm muscles. Not whatever burns the most calories. Whatever makes you happy.

Physical activity should be done only if it adding to your life, not something that comes at a cost. Not something that you dread. Not something that you have to make yourself do. Exercise is something that is pushed on us as categorically healthy, but it’s just not when it comes at the expense of someone’s mental or physical health, and it’s not when the drive behind it is body dissatisfaction, or downright body hatred. On the extreme end of the spectrum, exercise can also turn into a dangerous addiction, and in the case where exercise becomes the focus of someone’s life it needs to be taken very seriously, and this is something that I will talk about in my next article in the coming weeks (part 2).

If you are exercising not because you want to, but because you feel that you should, or have to, then I would highly suggest that you take time out, stop the exercise that you have been engaging in, and take the time to evaluate if what you are doing is actually benefiting you. Assess your reasons for exercising, and start building a positive and healthy relationship between you and your body. Because you need it, and you deserve it. Your body is perfect just as it is. Learn to love it, not to wage war on it. Then find movement in your life that makes you smile. Find movement in your life that you look forward to. Find movement that brings you positivity, and never expend energy in the name of diet culture ever again. You are beautiful, and this is what you deserve.

 

What Being Healthy Really Means

About a year or so into my recovery, I went to the hairdressers. When I sat down for a haircut, my (very awesome, around-the-same-age-as-me) hairdresser said, “You’re looking healthy!”

It took me a while to register that what she had said was a compliment. The eating disorder lodged in my brain saw an opportunity and cried out “Healthy?! Healthy?!What she really means is fatter.”

image

The above image is me before and during recovery from atypical anorexia. I didn’t even realise that there was a difference in the way I looked then and now bar that I had gained weight until I was at a friend’s house over Easter and on her wall were two photographs that included me: one at a healthy weight and one when I was underweight. I was in shock. I never realised how pale and sick I looked.

My hairdresser had been cutting my hair in Manchester since my first year at university. She saw my drop weight to my lowest, and she saw me restore it again. That’s how I know that her compliment was so sincere.

One thing that I’ve noticed since being in recovery is that even though sometimes I am unable to act on my own opinions, those opinions about food and weight and body shape have become so healthy that they’ve moved way over to the other side, as far away from disordered as possible, and past even most “normal” people’s views. My views have become so healthy that when I am having coffee with my friends at Starbucks, and one of them says “Oooh, do you think I should get a cake with my coffee? It’s kinda a lot of calories…” I look at her disapprovingly and say “Of course! If you want it, you eat it! Stop asking me for validation, that chocolate cake looks so damn good that you should get TWO SLICES.” Another of my friends said that she had eaten loads that day but “haha it was okay” because she would just work out for double the amount of time. To which I shouted “No, no you will not! Our bodies are not mathematical machines that have specific countable amounts going in and our like our diet culture would have us believe. You do not have to double your work out just because you over ate for one day. GIVE YOURSELF A BREAK!”

Having an eating disorder and trying to recover from it has ruined a lot of my life and had me existing in constant misery. What it has done for me though is introduced me to blogs like Fyoured, TheFuckItDiet, and Youreatopia , which opened my eyes to the actual truth rather than the lies that our money-grabbing, body-shaming diet culture would have us believe (I suggest that you check them out). I began to learn that being healthy means making the right choices for you and your body. It means going swimming if you genuinely love going swimming (but not before being in remission, or nearing it). It means having a second helping at dinner if you still want more. It means playing badminton with your best friend if that is what makes you smile. It means sitting down with a friend to watch a movie and sharing a whole tub of ice cream if that is one of your favourite foods. It means eating whole foods if that makes you feel great. It means spending the day in your pjs in bed blogging and watching TV when you want to relax. Being healthy means doing with your body what makes you happy. Genuinely happy. Without that eating disorder voice having any say.

In addition, exercise doesn’t have to be exhausting, or stressful. You don’t have to dread it. In fact you can exercise without even having to take much notice of it, and that’s the way that it should be done. Exercise should not ever be about changing your body. What it should be about is genuine enjoyment. In fact, I have talked about this topic extensively on my YouTube channel (Herehere, and here are my videos on exercise in recovery, and exercise in remission). It does not mean you have to spend gruelling hours at the gym or engaging in high intensity aerobics, gasping for air in your living room. It can mean taking a walk in the countryside with your dog/friend/camera. It can mean splashing around with your mates in the pool. It can mean getting competitive and enjoying a game of badminton in the sun. It can mean getting on the trampoline with your siblings. It can mean walking in the fresh air to town to do your shopping rather than catching the bus. It’s about what works for you.

Health is eating the right foods for you and nourishing your body and your soul. It’s about eating whatever you want, whenever you want. It’s about trusting your body and it’s cravings; whether it is calling for doughnuts or broccoli, you should respond to it. Being healthy is being happy, and the happier you are the more it will shine through your skin and your eyes and in the way you hold yourself. Knowing that is how I overruled the voice of my eating disorder when my hairdresser complimented me with those words: the knowledge that I was shining the most I had done for going on two years.

The Dangers of Addiction: Compulsive Exercise

I’m sure when you read the word ‘addiction’, the first few thoughts that sprung to mind were substance-abuse, alcoholism, nicotine addiction; maybe even gambling or sex addiction. Those are well-known, much talked about addictions, but for some, something which is heavily promoted in our society can become an unhealthy addiction. That something is exercise.

“Exercise?!” you gasp, in disbelief, “surely not? How can something so “healthy” be a problem?”

If you look around at the media, at health food blogs, at doctors recommendations, then you will see that women primarily, but also men too, are constantly being told that they should be exercising. I frequently see my friends updating their Facebook statuses letting us all know they have had an intense session at the gym, or tweeting about how they don’t want to go out for a run because it’s cold but the need to. I see “healthy” lifestyles which include clean eating (eliminating all processed foods and extra additives from your diet, and only eating whole, unrefined foods) and regular exercise all over blogging sites. I can’t seem to avoid fitspo. Society has become obsessed with it.

The way I see it, there are three types of people: people who genuinely enjoy the activity of working out, people who don’t like the activity but in their opinion the results are worth it, and people who cannot stand it but feel like they have to do it because of their addiction to exercise. In my opinion, only the first of the three should be exercising for exercise specifically (like in a gym or using a workout routine). Don’t get me wrong, I am not condoning a lifestyle of sitting on the couch eating Chinese takeaway and playing videogames (but if that’s what makes you happy, but all means, go for it!). What I am suggesting though, is that people who don’t like working out as a specific activity should just trade in public transport/car rides for walking, and it becomes a leisurely activity instead of a chore. This can make a huge difference to your body and your health if you do it often enough, but isn’t as strenuous and as tedious as a dedicated workout. If you hate going to the gym, all you are doing is trading in your unhappiness with your body for your unhappiness of devoting time to the gym and your dread before each session.

The thing is, these days we see exercise as something we don’t want to do, but something that we have to do. Doctor’s orders. Exercise has become something we associate with gyms and aerobics and gruelling runs, which most people don’t really enjoy. We’ve lost touch of recreational activity: doing things that we enjoy that involves physical activity. The enjoyment part is primary, and the activity secondary. Think swimming with your kids. Think playing football or badminton or squash or any sport that you love to do with your friends. Think walking in the countryside with your dog or your camera or your partner. Think volleyball on the beach. We don’t do fun things that involve exercise. Instead, we exercise in an attempt to alter our bodies, and that is just not healthy. Our lives and the way we spend our time should not be centred on chasing the “perfect” body. Unfortunately, society thinks that we should. I urge you to stand up to society and fight against that notion.

For those with exercise addiction though, it is another matter. You can’t just stop when you want to, or give yourself a day off (unless you already have a “scheduled” day, and then it must be that day and none other). You will miss social events if it coincides with your sessions. You will feel incredibly anxious before exercising, and after the exhilaration of finishing a workout has subsided, you will feel the dread of knowing that in less than 24 hours you will be repeating the same monotonous and exhausting work out.

As well as being mentally draining, compulsive exercise (also known an obligatory exercise or anorexia athletica) can have a negative effect on the body. Firstly, by working out intensely every day, the body is being put under a lot of strain, and is not being given any time to recover, which is needed. Those addicted to exercise will work out even if they are ill or injured, which could have serious consequences to their health, including damage to tendons, ligaments, bones, cartilage, and joints. When injuries happen and are not given enough rest to heal, this can result in long-term damage. If the body is not getting the nutrition that it needs, muscle can be broken down for energy instead of building muscle. Girl and women could disrupt the balance of hormones in their bodies, which can change menstrual cycles and even lead to the absence of them altogether. It can also increase the risk of premature bone loss, which is known as osteoporosis. The most serious risk is the stress that excessively exercising can place on the heart, particularly when someone is also restricting their intake, or using self-induced vomiting to control their weight. Using diet pills or supplements can also increase the risk for heart complications. In worst case scenarios, anorexia and compulsive exercise can result in death.

The reasons behind exercise addiction can be complicated. It could be that the person engaging in the behaviour is suffering from an eating disorder, which is the most obvious and probably most common reason, and is used as a form of weightloss and/or control. It could be used as a form of control by someone who does not suffer from an eating disorder. It could be a man obsessed with becoming muscular. It could be part of ortherexia (an obsession with eating “healthy” foods and leading “healthy” lifestyle). Athletes, dancers, wrestlers, gymnasts, and other people who are fixated with keeping in shape and keeping their weight down for their careers are also susceptible to being developing exercise addiction.

Although it is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, exercise addiction is a serious and potentially life-threatening obsession, and needs to be taken extremely seriously. It is not just a strain on the body but a strain on the mind. It is absolutely exhausting, and can take up a huge amount of your life and most of your thoughts, and is extremely unhealthy for your physical and mental health.

People need to be made aware that something that is pushed on us as categorically healthy can turn into an unhealthy addiction, and it needs to be taken seriously when exercise becomes the focus of someone’s life. If you are exercising not because you want to, but because you feel that you should, or have to, then you should take the time to evaluate if what you are doing is actually benefiting you.

If you think you may be developing/have developed an addiction to exercise, seek medical help from your GP.

Signs that you or someone you know may be suffering from compulsive exercise include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Not enjoying exercise sessions, but feeling obligated to do them
  • Seeming (or being) anxious or guilty when missing even one workout
  • Not missing a single workout and possibly exercising twice as long if one is missed
  • Seeming (or being) constantly preoccupied with his or her (or your) weight and exercise routine
  • Not being able to sit still or relax because of worry that not enough calories are being burnt
  • A significant amount of weightloss
  • Increase in exercise after eating more
  • Not skipping a workout, even if tired, sick, or injured
  • Skipping seeing friends, or giving up activities/hobbies to make more time for exercise
  • Basing self-worth on the number of workouts completed and the effort put into training
  • Never being satisfied with his or her (or your) own physical achievements
  • Working out alone, isolated from others, or so that other people are not aware of how much exercise is being done
  • Following the same rigid exercise pattern.
  • Exercising for more than two hours daily, repeatedly

(sites used for reference and more information: 

http://www.brainphysics.com/exercise-addiction.php
http://addictions.about.com/od/lesserknownaddictions/a/exerciseadd.htm
http://kidshealth.org/parent/emotions/behavior/compulsive_exercise.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exercise_addiction )