Many individuals who struggle with disordered eating and body image dissatisfaction exhibit an unhealthy relationship with exercise. In such cases, exercise may become an obligation that must be fulfilled at any cost, which may ultimately lead to physical injury, consume a disproportionate amount of time, and become a routine of punishing, rather than fueling one’s body.
However, given the various benefits of exercise, including improved mental health, physical strength, cardiovascular and other health advantages, and improved mind-body connection, integrating exercise into one’s eating disorder recovery can be imperative for well-being. Yet, approaching exercise in a healthy way, after having used it in a disordered manner, can feel extremely challenging. Here are some tips for reincorporating exercise into your recovery:
Ask Yourself: Like or Should?
Distinguish between types of exercises you like to do versus should do. Moving your body for the sake of feeling grounded and strong, rather than with the intention of burning the most calories, can make all the difference in exercising in a recovery-minded way. Many clients have mentioned that during their eating disorder, they would purposely partake in strenuous exercises that they hated – although these workouts felt like physical torture, they convinced themselves that they were necessary to achieve a certain body goal. Thus, for a healthier relationship with exercise, make a list of ways you would like to get your body moving to celebrate your body and feel good while moving it.
Recognize Triggering Exercise Environments
Depending on the stage of your recovery, partaking in exercise in certain surroundings – gyms, studios, or around certain people – may feed familiar eating disorder thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Research and reflect upon the culture of the workout environment you are considering: Does this facility focus on weight loss? Do staff use body-shaming techniques to motivate students? Do the studios seem to praise/welcome a specific body type?
Create a Safety Plan
Regardless of the type of exercise you choose or workout facility you attend, you can prepare yourself for potentially triggering experiences. To do so, consider creating a safety plan which may include the following: checking in with someone you trust before and after your workout; setting a realistic exercise time limit and asking a friend to keep you accountable; and exercising with someone who understands your recovery and embraces a healthy relationship with food, body image, and exercise.
Forget the Numbers
Since disordered eating and body dissatisfaction are often accompanied by rigidity, set behaviors, rules, and control, continuing to define exercise by numbers (calories, pounds, time, intensity, reps, etc.) may distract you from a recovery mindset. Instead of measuring workouts, try tuning in to your body as a way to monitor your movement experience – Are you overexerting yourself? Are you in pain? Do you feel sick? Are you punishing yourself? You can also practice mindfulness to keep yourself present throughout the exercise. For instance, focus on your breath or mentally scan various parts of your body that feel tense or uncomfortable. Absorb your surroundings using all of your senses. For example, if outside, practice mentally labeling what you see in your environment – trees, cars, etc. Such tasks keep you present in your body movements rather than worried about the outcomes of the exercise.
Focus on Gradual Exposure
Just as in any other relationship, creating a healthy relationship with exercise happens best through a gradual process. Try not to pressure yourself to quickly find a type of exercise, routine, or facility that is best for you. If you genuinely like to exercise at the gym but are nervous about the potentially triggering fitness-oriented culture, slowly expose yourself – plan a 10-minute trip to the gym to just walk around or stretch. Monitor how you feel and what would make you more comfortable. Try observing a workout class before participating. Also, remember that you can stop or leave whenever you feel triggered.
During this process, triggering thoughts around food, body image, and exercise may naturally resurface, especially given the diet and fitness culture in certain environments. Try to observe your thoughts and feelings without judgment. Remember that they served a purpose for a time. Treat yourself with compassion while allowing these thoughts and feelings to come up, and make time and space for yourself to process them later.
Bio: Bahar Moheban, M.A. is a registered psychological assistant in Torrance under the supervision of Dr. Nazanin Moali and a clinical psychology doctoral candidate. She provides psychotherapy in individual and group settings to adults and adolescents working through disordered eating, body dissatisfaction, and cormorbid disorders. Bahar has experience providing mentorship to individuals in recovery from eating disorders and facilitating support groups on improving one’s body image and relationship with food. Contact us today to book an appointment with Bahar.