Exercise in recovery from eating disorders is a controversial topic, especially when the person has a very low weight or when (as it often happens) has been obsessed with it as part of their illness. How can we gradually reintroduce it? Should it be reintroduced at all? This is my story about how one of the stones that used to sink me became a lifeboat.
My workout routine during anorexia
I had work out for 3 hours daily, including videos, a circuit and trotting (walking wasn’t included). If I hadn’t been able to do it during the day, I had to do it at night. If I couldn’t do it one day, I had to compensate the previous or the next one. If I couldn’t do it for several days, as in a trip, I had to compensate several days. That ended up creating in me an “accumulative” mindset: in anticipation that at some point I might not be able to work out because of x cause, I accumulated minutes and hours previously just in case. So in the end it was more time.
I felt strong and fit. But in fact I was breaking my muscles, since my body, in need of some extra energy during the workouts that it couldn’t get from food, was forced to take it from there. No matter how bad I felt, I had to do the planned exercises and the ones from the videos exactly right. In addition, my heart, smaller than normal, was forced to bear an increased pulse rate that supposed an excessive effort for it. I risked my life at every workout session. But I didn’t care because it was my mortification.
As with everything in this illness, I tried to do it in secret as much as possible. My mother knew about the videos, although I always tried to say they were more relaxed than what they actually were, that it was only stretching, that they weren’t a daily thing… That’s why I did them with the volume turned off, so she couldn’t listen to them, and trying to make as little noise as possible, in socks. She also knew about the trotting, in spite of me stopping every time she entered the room.
Did I enjoy working out back then?
Yes and no. I genuinely enjoyed the videos despite everything, because of that unreal feeling of strength and power they gave me and because they helped me release tension. Although only up to a certain point. When I was exhausted and I still had to do half of the video, it was quite a struggle. Quitting wasn’t allowed. If I paused to drink water, I needed to compensate by trotting for some more time.
What about the circuit? Meh, it was just something that had to be done and that’s it. Walking? Generally yes, to clear my mind —if my mind has ever been clear when I suffered this illness—; except when it was too cold and I felt the wind soaking through my bones. When I was that cold, then it was impossible to get warm again, even if there was heating in the place where I was going to.
What I didn’t enjoy at all was the trotting part. Activities such as studying, reading or watching movies on my laptop had to be done while trotting. In the everyday life I could cope with it, but the problem came when it was exams season and the trotting time increased. There came a time when every footstep hurt and I could barely concentrate on what I had to study. Several times I ended up having to lay on the floor. And keeping on studying and working out there, moving my legs like a bicycle.
Exercise during the first part of my recovery
When I decided to start recovery in December 2016, I knew that something about this had to change, but I was scared to death: I was already eating more and gaining weight, so if on top of that I reduced my activity levels, the number was going to skyrocket. Moreover, I’d gain al that weight “in the wrong places”, that is, not as toned muscles but as fat. Despite of the fears, little by little I dared to make changes. The first thing I quitted was the trotting, since deep down I was longing to stop it. At first I kept on doing those things walking fast, then only standing or walking slowly. Thanks to that, my feet pain went away. Now I can do some of them sitting, but it’s something I’m still working on.
The next step was bringing the topic up to my nutritionist. I told her all the movement I was doing and I put myself in her hands, although I did tell her that I’d prefer to keep working out. She agreed, but during the first month it was severely restricted. I had one total rest day (I used to have 0) and the rest of the days I could do 5-15 minutes of workouts for beginners, that couldn’t be cardio or have impact.
It was then when I discovered yoga, that became my favorite kind of training, since usually the frustration for doing so little exercise, and the humiliation I felt doing beginners things when I used to do advanced ones prevented me from enjoying it; however, yoga allowed me to feel free and calmed. Is the exercise that taught me to act in harmony with my body. As it was something I hadn’t done before and I didn’t know how to do the poses, it was a challenge and that amused me and removed the bad elements mentioned before.
Moreover, since unlike with other workouts I couldn’t add more intensity, power or speed to it, here better didn’t mean burning more calories, but gaining flexibility, balance, etc. That helped me to think about exercise in a totally different way. I learnt then to value my body for what it could do, and not just for its appearance (distorted by my mind anyway). That’s been one of the keys of my recovery: then, each time I saw myself horrible in the mirror, I could remember the things my body had allowed me to do during the workout and therefore show more compassion towards it. Oh, and my previously chronic back pain disappeared.
As time went by, I was allowed to increase the duration of the workouts and include more kinds of exercises. As cardio was still vetoed, I leant towards strength training, although at first without using any additional weight. Later, I was able to use water bottles as dumbbells: firstly, 250 ml ones, then, 500.
Exercise during the second part of my recovery
Finally, when I was about 11 months into recovery, I started to see my personal trainer. In a certain sense it was a challenge because it implied not training anymore as I fancied (with the plans I made with youtube videos): now I’d train with her workout plans. Therefore, as many other times in my recovery, I had to give up the control over an aspect of my life to put it in the hands of another person and trust.
It turned out to be a fabulous decision. It’s been from then one that I’ve really fallen in love with fitness and it’s become my passion. I love to make progress and conquer new goals, being each day stronger and knowing that I’m building my body instead of destroying it.
Now I do enjoy working out. It’s something that adds happiness to my life, something that most days I’m looking forward to doing, except in those days that I feel so bad that I don’t want to do anything: and it’s in those ones when it’s especially good for me, because I know that as soon as I start everything gets better. I end up always with more energy than at the beginning of the session, and with a clearer mind. Problems seem smaller and my spirit is in peace. So it contributes significantly to my mental health. In addition to my physical health as long as I don’t abuse it, but use it to heal; for example, it’s helped me to increase my bone density and therefore heal my osteoporosis.
I used to dream that when I no longer lived with my mother I’d be able to eat much less and then maintain my weight doing much less exercise. However, now I’d work out even if it didn’t burn calories, or what’s more, even if it had no effect on my body at all.
Exercise and body image
With all that, it has also been helpful for my body image, because since I’ve entered the fitness world my ideals have changed: little by little I’ve forgotten about thinspirations (extremely skinny models and girls) and perceiving healthy and strong body types as more desirable. In addition, among those there’s much more variety, many different possibilities of being and looking like that.
But in that sense the most important thing has been, as I said before, turning the focus a bit from aesthetics towards performance. When I see myself in the mirror and begin to criticize a part of my body for being “too big”, I remember all the cool stuff I can do with it when I work out and I can look at it with approval.
During the workouts, my body and I act as buddies. I demand from it, but then I’m going to give it the fuel it needs to recover. It’s not that I need to work out to eat, but that I need to eat to work out. Before I used to think that working out was good, and not eating after was better. Now however I know that working out is good, and eating after is better; if not, the workout would have been damaging for my body.
So, exercise: yes or no?
I know a lot of people in recovery fall into one of the two extremes: either they cling to their exercise addiction and boycott their own physical and mental progress, or they consider it forever as something related to their illness that they mustn’t do again even when they’re recovered.
In my opinion, working out is something good and advisable, because it helps us to fulfill the obligation to take care of our body (temple of the Holy Spirit) and its health. But that’s exactly why it must only be done as long as it contributes to that or, at least, as long as it isn’t the opposite, harmful. And in order to know whether it’s one thing or the other we have to follow 2 steps: analyze the true motivations that moves us to want to work out, and always wait to have the green light to do it from the doctors.
It’s true that I was allowed to work out with a lower weight than other people in recovery. But it’s also true that I earned it because I didn’t relapse. I ate what I had to eat and, although slowly, I gained the weight I had to gain. And I didn’t do more than what I was allowed to, so I could be seen as trustworthy. If your illness is so strong right now that it doesn’t allow you to do that, it’s not the time to add exercise to the equation.
Exercise in recovery is a double-edged sword, but from my personal experience I know it can help a lot if one takes it up from the right mindset: building and not destroying, healing and not punishing, valorizing your body and your abilities and not trying to change it from a place of hate.