Healthy Exercise in Recovery

by Althea Sherry, RecoverySpace advisory psychologist

If you look at health websites online or flip through a women’s magazine, there’s often a strong message that exercise is extremely healthy and that we should all be doing more of it – and, in general, that’s true. However, for many people who have problems with eating and weight (such as anorexia, bulimia and compulsive over-exercising), exercise can be anything but healthy.

So, when is exercise unhealthy? People suffering from eating disorders often use exercise for weight loss, self-punishment, or as a form of control. Exercise often becomes both compulsive and unenjoyable. During an eating disorder, exercise seems to be about pushing yourself to lose weight, and not caring what it takes to get there, which is anything but healthy. Unhealthy exercise includes ignoring your body’s signals of pain and fatigue. While the “mind over matter” approach to exercise is generally no longer popular, it’s often still very much a part of the eating disorder mindset, and affects a large number of people with eating problems.

Is your exercise unhealthy?
If you struggle with eating and weight, it could well be that your exercise is more on the unhealthy side. Think about what it feels like when you exercise, and see how many of these questions you answer “yes” to:

  • Do you force yourself to keep going even when you’re tired?
  • Are you exercising to lose weight, burn fat or calories?
  • Does exercise feel like a punishment?
  • Do you do the same exercises over and over?

If you answer “yes” to some of these questions, it may be time to think about a new approach to your exercise routine.

On the other hand, moving away from an eating disorder and into recovery often leads to a change of attitude regarding exercise. People find that they start to exercise for health and relaxation, rather than to lose weight. Exercise becomes about taking care of their health and body, rather than for control and just to burn calories.

As usual, with recovery from an eating disorder, there’s no quick fix to exercising healthily. It involves treating your body in a more caring way and changing the way you feel about exercise and the way you engage with it. This can be a frustratingly slow process, so below are some tips to help you keep exercising healthily:

Tips on exercising healthily:

  • Exercise for health, not weight loss. Focus on feeling genuinely healthier, rather than on control and burning calories.
  • Don’t be too repetitive. Cycling for hours everyday at gym, or running on a treadmill can lead to that control-based mindset. Try different types of exercise rather than the same thing each session.
  • Make exercise fun – exercise out of doors, with a friend or by dancing at a club to make exercise more fun. Toss a balloon at a friend. Take your dog for a walk.
  • Connect with your body. During eating disorders, we often cut ourselves off from our bodies. Getting reconnected to your body will help exercise to be more healthy. This can be scary at first, but it’s an important part of healthy exercise.
  • Don’t push too hard. Do enough exercise, but not too much. It may take a while to get the balance right, but over time it should start to fall into place. If you feel sick, sore or dizzy, then you know you’ve pushed it too far.
  • Do mindful exercise that helps you connect. Examples are yoga, pilates and tai chi. All these focus on the body in a slow and careful way, so that you learn more about how your body moves and how to move it well.
  • If exercise starts to feel like it’s moving towards “unhealthy” mode, take some time out and think about what you really want to gain from exercise, and how you can approach things in a healthier way.
  • It’s not so much what you do, as how you do it. It’s about enjoyment, rather than just about doing the “right” type of exercise. Yoga can be unhealthy too, if you push yourself too far.