Re-introducing Exercise After an Eating Disorder

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Studies show that the relapse rate for anorexia nervosa is 35% within two years of hospital discharge.  The same study showed that a factor for a higher likelihood of relapse was excessive exercise immediately after discharge.  From an outside perspective these numbers seem outrageously high.  From an insiders perspective, unfortunately, I am not surprised at all.  In my experience, re-introduction of exercise was the most overlooked aspect of recovery and the first thing I personally abused the moment I had an opportunity to.

In previous blog posts I’ve opened up a lot about my anorexia/exercise bulimia as well as where I am today as a personal trainer, but I haven’t spent much time talking about what happened throughout the years in between.  How did I take my excessive and compulsive exercise habits and turn them into, not only a healthy outlet, but also a career?

First of all, I will always keep it real with you — it wasn’t easy. I made A LOT of mistakes along the way, but my hope is that I can offer some tips and advice to help you avoid the trouble that I got myself into.  Second of all, I am not a doctor or therapist and I am purely documenting my personal experience which may be very different from yours.  Please consult your doctor or therapist before participating in any form of exercise.

Tips for introducing exercise after an eating disorder:

Find something you enjoy doing

Thats right, I said it – exercise should be ENJOYABLE! I spent many years using exercise as a form of punishment, so when I returned back to exercise after about a year into my recovery, punishment was all I knew.  From hiding jumping jacks and crunches in my room, to hours on cardio machines fueled with self-hate, I truly believed that if I wasn’t miserable, then it wasn’t working.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, exercise should be a celebration for what you body can do, not a punishment for everything that it’s not.  So, contrary to what our diet focused “thin-spiration” culture wants us to believe, pain does NOT equal gain!  Find an activity to get your body moving, but don’t feel a sense of pressure to spend hours in the gym or to even break a sweat! Whether it’s a walk with your dog, taking a yoga class, or going on a hike with your friends, if you’re moving your body and having a good time, then you’re doing it right!!

Avoid anything that tracks calorie burn

WARNING! This is where I made a big mistake.  Fitness has made major strides in the technology world, from cardio machines to heart rate monitors, all developed with good intentions to help track workouts and progress.  I ABSOLUTELY support these tracking devices for the average adult, however, I warn those recovering from an eating disorder to avoid them like the plague.  When re-introducing exercise, its very easy for the ED brain to shift the focus from how exercise makes us feel to how quickly we can lose weight.  So for example, even though my body was craving weight training & yoga, my eating disorder brain told me that those activities didn’t burn enough calories (according to my heart rate monitor), so therefore I should just do cardio instead.  I found myself chasing the number on monitor (which isn’t completely accurate, btw) and basing my daily caloric intake on these numbers — which is extremely dangerous!  Heart rate monitors are a great tool, but not if they sacrifice your mental health in the process.

Keep it short

When I was in the heat of my eating disorder, I had caloric intake & burn down to a science:  1 apple + 1Tbsp of peanut butter = 20 minutes on the elliptical (THIS IS NOT ACCURATE BTW).  After about 3 years in recovery I discovered weight training, but even then I was still convinced that if I didn’t spend 2-3 hours at the gym the workout was pointless.  Our eating disorder is an overachiever and tells us we can go just a little longer, one more set, or 10 more minutes on the treadmill.  When first re-introducing exercise, I recommend spending no longer than 30 minutes per day on your activities.  Set a timer, exercise with a friend who will hold you accountable, or schedule a meeting or phone call immediately after to force yourself to stop.  Even today, 9 years out of recovery, I still keep my workouts between 30-60 minutes, because first of all, I find myself to be more productive in short periods of time, and second, because I KNOW I still have a tendency to overdo it when the opportunity presents itself.  Know yourself and trust that your logic brain ALWAYS knows better than your eating disordered brain!!

Ask for help from the right people

I am forever grateful for the personal trainer that interrupted my life one day on my 40th minute of my elliptical workout.  He very kindly made small talk until finally asking if I would let him help me.  I accepted with excitement and gratitude.  In the back of my mind I always knew I needed help, but my eating disordered convinced me that “I did it once, I could do it again” and that I had everything under control on my own.  Boy was I wrong.  John introduced me to weight training for the first time and completely changed the course of my life.  If you are new to exercise or have never worked with anyone to show you proper form or technique, I urge you to reach out for help from a certified personal trainer.  Social media has a lot of great content, but it has way more crappy content from pretty looking people.  Just because someone looks great and was able to get themselves in good shape, does not mean that they are qualified to train you or that you should be following the burpee back flip program that they do on their own personal Instgram feed!  Exercise after an eating disorder is a whole different animal and shouldn’t be taken lightly!  If you are looking for customized programming or basic fundamentals, please contact me via email at morgandowd@embracingherstrength.com

IMG_2170I think we can all agree that regular exercise plays an important role in our general health — from disease prevention to cardiovascular health, exercise is vital! However, if not re-introduced properly after eating disorder, exercise can also be a catalyst to relapse.  Please proceed with caution and consult your doctor/therapist first, be kind to yourself and body, and don’t be afraid to ask for help! Embrace Your Strength girl!!!

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