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Eating disorder recovery: Healing your relationship with exercise

Updated: Apr 4

Intensive exercise workout

In my previous article, I examined exercise addiction and how you can overcome it. One indicator of an unhealthy exercise relationship is using it as punishment for consuming specific foods or striving to attain a particular body image. These behaviours might stem from an underlying eating disorder.  Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, for example, often co-occur with compulsive exercise.

A balanced use of exercise can, however, be a great help in eating disorder recovery.  Here are some strategies to help you navigate this process:


Challenge Distorted Beliefs:

Challenge any negative or distorted beliefs you have about exercise, such as the need to burn a certain number of calories or punish yourself for eating.

The science shows that, while exercise is crucial for overall health, it doesn't help with weight loss (for more detail check out "Burn: The Misunderstood Science of Metabolism" by Herman Pontzer). A study on energy expenditure among the Hadza, a hunter-gatherer community in Northern Tanzania, revealed that despite the Hadza being  5 – 10 times more active than the average person in the UK or USA, they didn't expend more calories.

The body adjusts itself to any increase in exercise.  For those who exercise more the body adjusts by using fewer calories on things like stress, and inflammation.  This is why exercise is a good thing, as the alternative distribution of calories is directly related to many auto-immune diseases.

Additionally, it is also worth noting that the body only really has 3 places where it can store energy: the liver, muscles, and fat. Liver and muscle stores can only hold approximately 2000 Kcal. On average, when running, you burn about 100 kcal per mile.  You would need to run approximately 20 miles before you start drawing on your fat store.  (Hitting the wall in a marathon is when you switch from burning glycogen to using fat as a fuel which typically happens at 20 miles). 


Document the type and duration of exercise:

If you don’t already do this, keep a diary documenting the type and duration of exercise you engage in. If you find yourself exclusively doing high-intensity cardiovascular workouts, take a moment to reflect on how you define exercise. For example, is it necessary for you to feel sweaty and exhausted at the end of each session?  Do you have to be wearing sports gear for you to be exercising?  Be honest with yourself.  Do you consider any of the following as exercise: using the stairs instead of a lift; walking (maybe with the dog); pilates, stretching or Yoga?

Diversify and Balance Your Activities:

If you realise you're stuck in a pattern of only high-intensity exercise, consider diversifying your exercise. Can you swap out a cardio session for a gentler recovery session? 


Set Boundaries:

Establish clear boundaries around exercise to prevent it from dominating your life. Limit the time spent exercising and prioritize other areas of your life such as relationships, hobbies, and self-care.


Celebrate Progress:

Acknowledge and celebrate the progress you make towards fostering a healthier relationship with exercise. Every small step toward balance and self-care is a significant achievement.


Seek Professional Support:

Talk to a therapist or counsellor specialising in eating disorder recovery. They can assist you in uncovering the root causes of your unhealthy relationship with exercise and develop strategies to manage it effectively. Remember, recovery is a journey, be patient with yourself and have faith in your ability to heal and attain equilibrium in your life.

First published on Counselling Directory, 19/03/24

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