Can You Exercise in Eating Disorder Recovery?

If you follow me on Instagram (@lovelyandlazy) and watched my story the other day, you probably listened to me rant about my thoughts on exercise in eating disorder recovery.

The number one question most people have about exercise in eating disorder recovery is: can I exercise in eating disorder recovery? And, the more difficult follow-up question is: how do I know when it is safe for me to resume exercising after my eating disorder?

Anyone who knows me knows how strongly I stand against fad diets and exercise plans — especially those sold to you by influencers like Kayla Itsines. But at the same time, I understand the pressure not to exercise in eating disorder recovery, and the frustration of wanting to move your body without slipping into relapse.

Here’s how to decide if you should resume an exercise routine in eating disorder recovery, and what forms of exercise are “safest” for those recovering from an eating disorder.

When Can I Start Exercising Again?

Awhile back, I wrote a blog post called “Reacting to Meredith Foster,” where I took issue with some points in her eating disorder recovery. Namely, I busted the myth that recovery = trading starvation for squats.

More and more girls I see on Instagram — especially the thin, stereotypical, pretty ones — claim that lifting weights and busting it out at the gym helped them recover. And while lifting weights can help you focus on what your body can do, rather than what it looks like, I firmly believe that there’s just as much negative body image in the fitness community as there is in your eating disorder mindset. Just read what Cassey Ho, aka Blogilates, has to say about training for a bikini competition back in 2012.

For some people, like me, exercise is a trigger word that brings up unpleasant memories and sensations of guilt, self-loathing and pushing yourself until you puke on the treadmill. If your eating disorder manifested as excessive exercise, you may find it difficult to resume an exercise routine than someone who never struggled with their gym routine.

Image result for spongebob weight lifting gif

There are times when you definitely should not consider taking up exercise in eating disorder recovery (for example, if you are seriously underweight or have health problems that could make exercise dangerous), and times when gentle exercise may actually benefit your mental health. Below, I share some of my thoughts — but above all else, it’s essential to check in with your doctor before beginning any new exercise routine, especially in eating disorder recovery.

DON’T exercise if:

  • You have a BMI <18. It’s incredibly dangerous to exercise when severely underweight. Over-exercising can cause amenhorrea (loss of your menstrual period), brittle bones and fatigue, aka “female athlete triad.” If your electrolytes are low because you are malnourished or dehydrated (from vomiting or overexercising), exercise may even induce heart attack, cardiac arrest and death. That’s why inpatients with a BMI <15 are often placed on full bed rest, and may not even walk to the bathroom on their own.
  • You are weight restoring. If you find yourself arguing to continue exercising during weight restoration, because you “love the way exercise makes you feel” and “it’s not about weight loss at all,” it may be your eating disorder trying to fool you. The only way to regain control of your life is to stop listening to these signals from your eating disorder, and take a break from exercise until you are healthier.
  • You have a medical condition that makes it difficult to exercise. When we’re stuck in our eating disorder mindset, you might push yourself to exercise when it isn’t safe to do so. Over-exercise can even lead to medical conditions, such as repetitive use injuries. You really shouldn’t exercise if you have a fever or cold, an injury or a flareup of a chronic condition (such as asthma), since excessive exercise can compromise your immune system and prolong recovery.

Feel free to exercise (but don’t force yourself to) if:

  • You are following your treatment plan (and it’s working). If you’re complying with your doctor’s medical advice, are seeing a therapist regularly and have seen an improvement in physical and mental symptoms (such as weight restoration and reduced anxiety), you may want to consider adding light exercise back into your weekly routine.
  • You are prepared to eat more to sustain an exercise routine. When looking to lose weight, we’re taught not to fuel our exercise with more food, as it “defeats the purpose.” However, when exercising in a healthy way, your body needs more calories to fuel its increased physical activity. You may feel hungrier or find that you need a snack sooner after resuming an exercise routine. That’s something you should make peace with, and feel comfortable with, before you take up exercising normally again.
  • You are having a monthly period (if you are female). If you have female reproductive organs and get a monthly period, your period should be coming regularly before you resume an exercise routine. Many people lose their periods when severely underweight or over-exercising. Your menstrual cycle can take time to come back, even after making a full mental recovery. Wait until your period returns as normal before resuming an exercise routine.

Tips for Exercising Safely in Eating Disorder Recovery

Once you get the green light from your doctor to exercise in eating disorder recovery, you should follow these safety guidelines to ensure your exercise does not result in unintentional weight loss or relapse of your eating disorder:

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  • Eat more to fuel your exercise routine. Calorie counting can be triggering, but it’s helpful to ask a dietitian how much you should be eating when active, since you need more energy to keep up an exercise routine than to be sedentary all day. Many athletes and trainers recommend snacking on fast-burning carbs, like white toast or fruit slices, before a workout, and refueling with protein after a workout. In fact, one of the best snacks you can enjoy after a workout is chocolate milk for its balance of sugar, protein and fat!
  • Listen to your body. Disordered eating tells us to exercise no matter the cost, rain or shine, sick or well. But some days, you may wake up to your 8:00am alarm before yoga class and find that you just don’t have the energy — not even for child’s pose. Work on being okay with that. It may be uncomfortable at first to skip a workout, but it’s important to let your body rest between exercise sessions, and on days when you aren’t feeling up to a workout.
  • Find an exercise routine you enjoy. Don’t force yourself to run a half marathon if you hate running! When suffering from an eating disorder, exercise is never fun. Rather than treating exercise as a chore, find something you love to do that also helps you keep active. For me, it’s yoga and ballet classes, walking my dog and occasionally lifting weights or doing Pilates. Taking exercise classes is fun for me because it combines being social with getting active. I also recommend taking advantage of free workouts on the web. I like the app Wakeout, the website Joyn and the YouTube channels Blogilates and Yoga with Adriene for fun workouts you can do anywhere.
  • Remember that every bit counts! During my eating disorder, I didn’t think dance class counted as a workout, and forced myself to lift weights and do conditioning in addition to 2+ hours of dance per night. Now, I know that even just one minute of jumping jacks while working from home can help me get active and boost my mood, without turning exercise into a dreaded task. Anything that gets your heart going and your blood pumping “counts” as exercise.

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