An Expert Q&A On All Things Exercise and Eating Disorder Recovery
As eating disorder dietitians, we find that many of our clients – because of the documented health benefits from exercising – feel afraid to change their relationships with exercise.
They have often heard the benefits of exercise being praised and admired. Yet, they may have also experienced trauma from exercise or felt ashamed of moving their bodies.
We hope to start a discussion, offer permission, and inspire you to chart your own path of addressing exercise in recovery. In the process, we would like to share our own experiences of exercise and recovery.
We believe and support that everyone’s relationship to exercise and recovery is completely unique.
That said, enjoy this interview-style narrative on exercise and recovery from both of us; Erica Drewry (CEDRD, RDN, LD) and Tiffany Haug (MS, RDN, EDOC):
Q&A with Erica Drewry and Tiffany Haug
Q: What contributed to your decision to abstain from exercise?
In my recovery, my body and mind intuitively told me exercise was a no-go for a very long time and that abstaining would be the best thing.
However, the later stages of my recovery work emphasized how to incorporate exercise wisely. This meant that I had little to no reinforcement that I could trust my body with the message it was giving me. I remember feeling guilty because I was told by my providers that one of the best ways to improve my body image was through exercise -despite the fact that I didn’t want to do it. There is indeed research that engaging in exercise alone has been associated with positive body image, regardless of whether there are actual body changes that occur as a result of that exercise. Although exercise might have had beneficial effects regarding body image, I wasn’t able to reframe my motivation to engage in exercise in a healthy way. I knew I needed to abstain from it indefinitely.
Exercise was always a way for me to change, tone, and trim my body. It made up for what I ate, gave me permission to eat socially, or managed my anxiety. I developed a lot of negative memories with exercise. Logically, I knew I needed new, positive memories with exercise before my perspective could be changed. Yet, every time I attempted exercise I found myself driven by the same motivations. Because my relationship with food was balanced and self actualized, in contrast, exercise still felt like a dreaded chore I wasn’t ready to face. Unintentionally, it led me to the belief that there is power in taking a break from something. My hiatus from exercise allowed me to get much needed space and distance. It led me to appreciate and tolerate my body and eventually find my own way back to exercise.
Q: If someone is fully “weight restored,” eating enough, and doesn’t have an injury, isn’t abstaining from exercise detrimental to their health?
What does true “health” really mean? Health isn’t just physical, but also includes emotional, spiritual, social, and mental needs. Exercise might have some physical benefits, but depending on the individual and their phase of recovery, it could negatively impact other health aspects. It’s been so important in my own life with things to take “good things” like exercise to a more meta level to see how they’ll impact all facets of health. It really helps to tease out nuances to decide if it’s actually beneficial for me.
To me, exercise is like a medication. It can help with some symptoms we may be experiencing and can offer a cure to some of the issues we’re facing. Like any other medication, we must consider the potential benefits and side effects. Some side effects may be more detrimental to our health than the proposed benefits. Considering that, it may make sense to prescribe something else or look for other ways to improve the symptoms at hand. Our minds and bodies call for individual prescription regimes that evolve throughout our lives.
Q: Were you ever shamed or guilt-tripped for not exercising for so long?
I was never shamed, per se. But being in the field of nutrition the message is often that everybody under the sun needs to have an exercise routine. Because I knew this message was not something that applied in my own recovery for many, many years, I would often bristle at this message. Though I would debate the need for everyone to exercise with professors and classmates, I never really get anywhere with that. It was hard to hear the overarching message that if a person isn’t currently working out they need to find a regular exercise routine – pronto.
I questioned what I was doing (or not doing) often. And as a new dietitian, I felt guilty for not doing the very thing that was recommended to my patients. Nevertheless, I was thin and had the privilege of not being shamed by anyone other than myself. But I still felt lost because my decision to forego exercise wasn’t an official decision that I was aware of at the time. As I developed understanding and compassion for myself and my experience, I was able to trust that I was on the right path.
Q: Did you have rules around what types of exercise you were going to stay away from and how long? When did you know if was something safe to incorporate?
I never had a specific time frame of how long I wanted to abstain from exercise. I just knew that I would not exercise unless my body told me that it wanted to. Since I had such a complicated relationship with exercise in my eating disorder, I never thought that I would ever have the actual desire to exercise. It took about 8 years, but I finally did. At that point my “rules” (though I did not think of them as such at the time) were that the exercise had to be something I enjoyed and I would never prolong the duration past what was fun for me. This was to prevent the likelihood of exercise becoming a “more, more, more” and “longer, faster, stronger” situation.
I wish I could say that I peacefully decided to walk away from exercise and came back when I knew I was ready. That sounds so perfect! But in reality, it was a messy, stop-and-go process filled with shame and “shoulds” along the way. I learned difficult truths and core beliefs about myself through my relationship with exercise. Like food, I addressed my thoughts and beliefs in all-of-their-irrational-glory. I’ve always found myself striving for the best and thriving on structure and routine. Conversely, with exercise I’ve found value trying new things and varying my schedule. Effectively listening to my body requires me to sometimes strive for my best and other times pull back.
Q: What role does exercise serve in your life right now?
Personally, the gym environment causes me stress and I that I vehemently loathe. So when I’m active it is usually outside in nature. Exercise is a way for me to engage in fun activities with friends (I mean let’s be real, hiking in San Diego is pretty bomb), or to get some introvert time in and just enjoy time moving my body for a bit. Thankfully, I don’t dread exercise now. This is because, in terms of physical activity, if I start to dread something it’s taken off the list immediately. I don’t have any reason to suffer through a physical activity I don’t enjoy! I’ve learned to give myself so much permission and grace to like what I like and dislike what I dislike. So nowadays, I’m really looking at exercise from a lens of what sounds like a fun thing to enhance the overall level of fun in my life.
Exercise is a way to move in order to manage my scoliosis, mood, muscle tightness, and promote better sleep. The pain in my back and fear of immobilization as I age is what brought me back to exercise. Through physical therapy, I saw that movement helped my body feel better. Now, I genuinely look forward to exercise. It feels freeing and peaceful to know there is no hidden agenda to change my body. Although I don’t spend much time exercising, I never imagined I’d feel this positive towards it. I credit this change to time spent resting my body and improving other areas of my life. It’s all up you. There is hope that you will find a way to navigate the tricky waters of exercise in recovery. Know that everyone’s journey is different, and there’s no need to rush into something you don’t feel you’re ready for. Put faith in your ability to challenge your beliefs, overcome the expectations of others, and foster a healthy relationship with your body… whether that includes exercise or not.