Exercise After An Eating Disorder. (Part II of From Athlete to Anorexic)
***There are a part of this blog where I discuss a short relapse into excessive exercise and restriction. If you find this triggering, please take care of yourself and leave it for another day. The rest of the blog is about how I learned to exercise again mindfully. If you want to read that part, skip down until you see the (*) *****
I don’t know about everyone else but this week was SOOOO LOOONG! So excited that it’s finally Saturday!
So I’m just going to dive right into this blog and pick up where I left off in my last blog!
I was ordered to be sedentary and it was very difficult to decide to do this. I finally caved and decided to go for recovery full on and comply with what my team wanted, aka, eat, don’t exercise and work on renewing my mind.
Being sedentary was very difficult. It led me into what I would describe as a very deep depression. I kind of had no idea who I was anymore. I went from spending hours upon hours working out, thinking about working out, counting calories and obsessing about my diet, to now being overweight, eating foods I would NEVER have eaten for the past seven years, dealing with major health issues and having a lot of time on my hands since I was no longer spending it on constant exercise and counting. I also had taken away the main way that I dealt with my emotions, so I was left feeling the pain of a lot of things I was trying to hide from over the years. I felt disgusting, overwhelmed, depressed, anxious, tired, completely out of control and angry.
Watching myself gain weight and not be able to exercise while still having an eating disorder is like a cruel form of punishment. I cannot describe how horrible this is. It’s like putting your hand on a hot stove top and having no ability to take it off and trying to find new ways to cope with the heat. This is also when people were asking if I was pregnant and I developed a real fear of leaving my house because of the weight gain. It took a LOT of time with my therapist challenging thoughts, working on my body image, and simply every hour choosing recovery over relapse to keep going.
I’m sure people are wondering why I was not allowed to exercise, so I’m going to do my best to explain why it was important for me to be sedentary. First of all, I was about to have a heart attack, so it was important for me to stop exercising simply because it was about to kill me. DUH. Second of all, I had done a LOT of damage to my body. I shared in the last post how I have osteopenia. This came about because I was so nutrient deficient that my body started to take nutrients from my bones to keep me going. I have done damage to my kidneys, my pancreas, my gut, my stomach, my muscles, my cells, my brain, my eyes, my metabolism, my hormones (do I really need to keep going?). My body was in extreme calorie deficit. SO, in order to heal, my body needs nutrients. It needs to be fed. So everything I eat needs to go towards healing my body and allowing my body to use every calorie and bit of energy towards healing the damage. If I go and workout, I am using up calories, nutrients and energy that could go towards healing. 3) My body is smart. It changed it’s entire way of doing things because I was beating it up through exercise and starvation. I now want my body to trust me and go back to working normally. I want my metabolism to speed back up. I want my body to feel safe enough to regain a menstrual cycle, I want my pancreas to stop secreting too much insulin because I’m now eating enough, and in order to do this I have to stop exercising. If I continue to exercise, my body will continue to think it needs to stay in this starvation, fight or flight mode. I want it to come out of that mode. So I need to feed it a lot of food, and let it know I will not hurt it anymore with exercise, this way it can feel safe enough to heal. Make sense?
Obviously the hard part about it is that when I first started eating and not exercising my body of course 1) didn’t trust me and 2) wanted to hang onto any food I would give it, thus the weight piles on because my body wants to store it in case I keep starving. (Have I convinced you yet to be in awe of how God created our bodies?!?!) This weight gain was fast and a lot. I overshot my pre-eating disorder weight by a MASSIVE amount. I am not going to share the amount because, umm why would I do that?! If you really feel the need to know how much, or are recovering yourself and want to know if you are normal or not, message me, I’ll tell you how much weight I’ve gained. Chances are, you are normal :) AND this doesn’t always happen to everyone. My body was in bad shape. I was told that my body would gain weight until it felt it had enough to heal and stay safe, then it would stay that weight as it healed and then after healing and trusting me, over a “length” of time, the overshoot weight will slowly and on it’s own come off until I reach a normal set point weight for me. This weight is determined by genetics, my body etc, not what I “want” to look like.
Fast forward to little over a year of the being sedentary/gain weight time, my body had pretty much finally stopped gaining weight. YAY! At this point my team decided it would be ok for me to re-introduce very gentle exercise. Think short walks and light yoga, which to a person that use to run 5 miles a day then hit the gym, it was a joke.
If I’m being honest, I was DESPERATE to work out again. I felt huge and disgusting and wanted this recovery weight off of my body as fast as possible. So, when I got the green light to do “gentle” exercise again I jumped in full force…..and it was bad.
I immediately went back to the gym and got on the arch trainer. Then I lifted weights. Then I would walk the dog for three miles. Then my food started to slip.
I want to share a bit of what was going through my mind. I really wanted to lose the weight again. When I bold and italicize the word really, it doesn’t even do how badly I wanted to get this weight off of my body justice. I thought that by exercising the weight would just come off. I thought it would come off fast because I was so overweight and that’s what happened the last time so many years ago. I figured now I was eating enough, so if I work out I will see results and all will be good and I can get my body back and GLITTER! (Can you tell I’ve been watching the Bachelor? I’m ashamed…)
It did not go down this way. When I went back to the gym I was BEYOND frustrated. I was now WAY heavier then I was before. Moving this weight around was hard. I felt sweaty and gross and got defeated very quickly. The weight did not just melt off like I thought it would. (Quickly, this is because my body is recovering and is not working like a normal body, it is going to hang onto my recovery weight until it feels safe enough too let go of it no matter how much I work out. In fact, working out too much will cause my body to hang on to it longer…). I felt embarrassed to be seen at the gym. I was comparing myself to everyone else there. I couldn’t stop comparing myself to MYSELF two years before. I had no muscle and I left crying almost every single time.
My team was getting concerned. I track all of my food and exercise on an app called recovery record and they were seeing my food decrease and my exercise increase. Instead of gentle yoga I was forcing long uphill walks with my dog. I was becoming obsessed with losing the weight again, my ED was creeping back in and my body image was plummeting fast…
and then, I SWEAR this was God saving my life AGAIN, I broke my ankle. I snapped my tibia and fibula. Now do I think that God broke my ankle to teach me a lesson? I’m not sure, but, breaking my leg I’m 100% sure kept me from relapsing into full blown excessive exercise and anorexia again. I was becoming obsessed with losing my recovery weight, I was trying to exercise too much, my mental state was slipping back into calories and good food/bad foods and BOOM, broken leg and I’m forced to be sedentary AGAIN.
At the time this killed me. If I felt depressed before, now I was at an all time low. I’ll say this though, looking back, I’m SO thankful I broke my leg. I needed that to happen. It made me realize I had a lot of work to do when it came to my relationship with exercise and how I was using it to manipulate my body. It was almost like up until that point I was going along with recovery just waiting for the time I was allowed to exercise again so I could just jump back in and lose the weight. Now, I realized I had a real problem and I really need to reassess WHY it is so important for me to lose this weight and why am I actually exercising?
During this time I worked through these questions mentally. I realized that I wanted to lose the weigh because I thought if I lost the weight my life would be better again. Truth is, losing the weight would not make my life any better, it would just make me weigh less. It revealed to me that I still was holding a lot of my value and self worth in my body size and in my ability to exercise. I also realized that the ability to control my weight and exercise was how I coped with stress, anxiety, insecurity and pain. Exercising and being fit and pretty made me confident and able to walk into a room. That had to change. I had to accept that my body is recovering and that I do not have control of it. God made it how it is and it will be the size it needs to be when I eat healthy, and I REALLY need to work on loving myself at whatever size that is at the moment instead of hating myself and wanting to change it.
I realized my eating disorder was still very strong in ways that I had not anticipated. up to this point I had been working very hard on the diet and emotional side of things. Eating enough. Accepting and trying fear foods. Finding my worth again. But because I had been sedentary I hadn’t really challenged the part of my eating disorder that was the excessive exercise. So when I was allowed to exercise again it reared it’s ugly head and I felt like I got slapped in the face by it.
The truth is, I didn’t know how to exercise if it wasn’t for weight loss. So when I was allowed to move again, it was impossible for me to even take a walk without having the thought of whether or not this was going to help me lose this extra weight or not. Since that was the only mind set I knew, the good food/bad foods and calorie counting quickly follows. If it is all for weight loss then it all has to work together right? I would eat something and have the thought that I just ruined my walk, and feel guilty. I quickly fell right back into the compensatory type of thinking when it comes to exercise and I HAD to figure out how to stop it because the anxiety, guilt, ruminating and problems come right back up and these are the exact things I’m trying to free myself from. So I found myself in a pickle. I’m overweight, I want to lose this weight, My body won’t allow me to lose the weigh because it’s healing, I want to exercise and be healthy because I like to move and be an athlete, but I don’t know how to do it anymore without wanting the result to be weight loss and turn back into my obsessive eating disorder mindset. This shiz is hard people!
In the six months (and honestly still now), that my leg was healing, I worked on renewing my mind about exercise and my body and my weight. It is a LOT of work, and to be honest I’m still not there. I also spend a lot of time with God, sharing my fears with him, sharing how lost I feel, sharing how much I want my body back, but also how badly I want to not care at the same time. I continually asked him to renew my mind and help me. I force myself to find my worth in who I am as a wife, a youth leader, a sister and as a woman of God instead of how much I exercise or what my weight is, so when the time came that I was given the go ahead to work out again, my mind would be a bit renewed and my perspective about exercise changed, and let me tell you…it was! (for the most part!)
After my ankle healed up enough I was again given the go ahead by my team to start working out. This time I decided, with the help of my team, to do things different. Here’s how…
I don’t go to the gym. Honestly, I decided I don’t like the gym and it isn’t a safe place for me! Maybe in time my mind will change, but for now, I find it insufferable and triggering. Calorie counts are everywhere. It’s so easy for me to compare myself to others. Why is it wall to wall mirrors? I don’t really want to get on a machine and stare at a talk show on a TV. It stinks. Literally and figuratively. I just don’t feel joy there at all.
I find movement and exercise that I like and that feels good. This way, it’s not about weight loss, it’s not about calories, it’s about moving my body and feeling good. If that ends up being running, then great, but you know what, it might not be running and I have to allow myself the freedom to figure that out. (I will talk more about this later)
I enforce flexibility. I am a person that is a perfectionist. I finish what I start. I do what I say I will do. If I say I will work out three days a week for thirty minutes, I will work out three days a week for thirty minutes. The problem is, this leaves no room for flexibility and being human, and a lot of room for my eating disorder to creep in a beat me up. So, I have a goal to work out three days a week for thirty minutes. I also have a goal to not keep that goal. HAHA! I know it sounds crazy, but I purposely have only worked out twice in a week just to let myself know that I’m ok, my worth has not changed, my body is still ok, I am still loved and the world has still kept turning! Practicing flexibility has been life changing for me. It has helped me treat my body with more respect and love instead of forcing it to work out when I just don’t freaking feel like it!
I will stay in the moment as I work out. It is VERY easy for me to compare my body now with the body I had two years ago. It is the fastest way for me to get defeated, trigger ED behaviors and become overly emotional. During a workout I now try to stay as present as possible. I concentrate on the moves I’m doing and how they feel. I try to enjoy what I’m doing in the moment and think about how fun it is!
I try my best to practice radical acceptance about my body. My body right now is not where I want it to be. But you know what? That’s ok. I am doing everything I can today to get it there. It will not happen over night!
I practice self compassion. There are a lot of things I can’t do now that I use to be able to do. For example, I use to be able to run ten miles, now, I can’t even run for two minutes. No literally. I can’t haha! I use to be able to do sit ups, now, my belly gets in the way. I can really allow this to get to me some days, but I’m at my best when I am treating myself with compassion. There are a lot of times that I am working out and I can feel the tears welling up in my eyes because I feel heavy and overwhelmed and frustrated. In those moments I try and sit back and say to myself, “Sara, this is really hard. It’s ok to feel sad and frustrated. You have been through a lot and your body is far from where you want to be, AND you are doing it! You are working out and you are taking care of yourself. Your bode is healing. Go slower today and be kind to yourself. Not every day has to be 100%.”
I measure nothing. I maybe set an overall goal, like I want to walk for X minutes or go for a X mile hike, but I really listen to my body first and foremost. I use to know I was done with a workout when I hit a calorie burn or my allotted time that I had decided on. Now I let my body let me know what it’s done, and it does! If it is in pain, I stop. If I can’t breath, I take a break. If I wanted to do 30 minutes of dancing, but at 25 I literally am done, I let myself be done. Don’t get me wrong, I still push myself, but I also listen to my body when it says it’s over. This protects me from injury, but more importantly it allows me to learn to trust my body and my body to trust me. If biking doesn’t feel good, maybe I need to do yoga instead that day. I’m done with a workout when my body says I’m done, not when a clock or a fitbit does.
So in number two I mentioned that I needed to find movement and exercise that I like and that feels good! My goal is to enjoy exercise and enjoy moving my body. I went to the gym and I realized, I actually don’t enjoy that. I went for a run and right now, I really don’t enjoy doing that either. It hurts and the whole time I think of calories. I tried biking and honestly, the seat hurts my butt. I don’t know how people bike. It is literally painful on the rear! I cant bring myself to swim yet. My body image isn’t quit there where I’m able to wear a bathing suit. I tried a lot of things and eventually I found out that I like to do random workouts at home that I make up myself with free weights (almost like Tabata), I LOVE to dance, and I LOVE to hike! So now that is what I do!
My husband and I started to go hiking every weekend! It started off with I think one or two miles. It was all I could do! My ankle was still healing, I was very out of shape and I just couldn’t do more then that length. But we slowly increased our mileage and the difficulty and over the next couple of months I built up to doing a five mile hike that was moderate. I LOVE IT! I’m outside. The views are beautiful. I get to take my dog along with me. I’m moving my body. It is GREAT exercise! Its amazing!
I also LOVE to dance! Whether its hip hop, zumba, ballroom, I don’t care. I will pop on a youtube video and shake it. I smile the entire time. I know I’m moving my body and getting a great workout in and I don’t feel like I’m punishing myself!
Learning to exercise for enjoyment and my health instead of for weight loss and for a certain body type or calorie burn was a game changer for me. If weight loss happens while I do these things, then GREAT! I am still allowed to want my body to return to it’s normal, healthy, pre-eating disorder weight. I am just not going to allow myself to stress and do punishing workouts to achieve it.
Because of my history I have to be on guard for relapse. My eating disorder can creep back in very quickly and take over. For example, I will have a week where I have worked out twice and its now towards the end of the week and I am not feeling very good. Maybe I have a bad head cold. I immediately have eating disorder thoughts that I am bad if I don’t get my third work out in. I will feel like a failure or like I won’t get my body back if I don’t do my work out. These thoughts are all lies. One way that I combat them is I always ask myself a simple question before I work out, and depending on the answer to this question, will I then move forward with a workout. The question is…
Why am I working out today?
If I am working out today because I feel the need to move my body, it sounds like a good idea, I haven’t moved in a few days and I feel stiff and need some exercise, then great! Green light! Time to exercise! If it is because I want to enjoy being outside, spend time with others while exercising, or reach a mountain peak I’ve been wanting to see, then great! Green light! But if my answer to that question is, I need to get my third workout in this week or else I’ve failed, or I ate bad for the past few days and I need to make up for it, or I need to work out because I need to change the shape of or weight of my body. RED LIGHT. I will purposely not work out that day. I will actively fight against my eating disorder in this way. I will move my body to feel good and be healthy. NEVER to punish myself for what I ate or to manipulate my body ever again.
This takes a lot of body image acceptance. This means that I have to accept my body at the size and weight that it wants to be when I eat intuitively and exercise in a healthy and compassionate way towards my body. But this leaves us with the question of how will my body lose this recovery weight if I’m not on a diet and I’m not exercising it off?!?!
Do I want to lose weight. Yes. Yes I do. I want all of my overshoot recovery weight to come off, and honestly, it’s a lot of weight! I do want to feel like myself again. Do I think that the weight will come off without going on a restrictive diet and over exercising? Yes. Yes I do! (Most of the time. I do have weeks and days that I get discouraged) In fact, it Is already starting to come off. Very very slowly. I think my dietician told me it’s about a pound a week, yipee!! haha. As my body heals and trusts me, my body will return to the weight that it is meant to be at. I will say this, the weeks that I don’t eat enough and exercise too much, my body gains weight because it gets scared. The weeks that I eat more and intuitively, and exercise by listening to my body, my body loses some of the extra weight each time. My team and I have a good idea of what my recovered weight will most likely be considering my genetics, my history, my body type etc. and I’m happy with where we think that will be! Is this weight loss going to happen quickly? No? It will actually probably take the next year or two. Why? Because it isn’t a crash diet. It isn’t excessive exercise. It is allowing my body to find it’s way while I treat it right. It is hard to not want the quick fix and get my body back fast, but I also want freedom and to do it right this time so I’m willing to be patient, plus, I can’t tell you how freeing it is to not be on a diet and not be punishing myself with exercise for a body that I didn’t even love.
Ultimately my goal is to again be the athlete I once was. I want to be able to run again and feel good about it. I want to maybe play on a co-ed softball team and feel fit and agile again. I want to hike to a higher peak and see the view! I’m just not there yet. My body needs time to heal and recover from what I did to it.
Every time I exercise I am fighting thoughts that ED is throwing at me about my body. It takes a massive amount of work to renew the mind from the brainwashing of diet culture and excessive exercise. Even this past week I had a full blown melt down because I couldn’t stand the fact that the weight was coming off so slowly and I felt I couldn’t do anything about it. Then I remind myself that I’m healing, how awesome my body is for not giving up on me after what I put it through, how much time this will take, that I’m doing ok, and that my weight is literally the least interesting thing about me. Exercise is still a struggle. I have a hard time moving my body, but I do it anyway because it is something I value but have learned it doesn’t give me worth. I am constantly extending myself grace and compassion as I relearn how to exercise.
I know I will get there! Every day is a new day to try again and learn from yesterday. Every day I grow stronger. Every day my mind heals and I am slowly renewed, on the outside, but more importantly on the inside :)
- Sara -
p.s. Last week I shared a bit of my story about how exercise played a role in how I became anorexic. I do want to clear a few things up because I have received some feedback :) My excessive exercise (aka bulimia non-purging) was just one part of my eating disorder. Eating disorders are multifaceted and I only shared one aspect of my eating disorder. I was also diagnosed with anorexia, so there was also a part of my eating disorder that was extr
eme starvation. Then there is the part of the eating disorder that is the emotional side, the triggers and the maintaining factors, which are in my opinion the deeper issue behind the eating disorder. Maybe one day I will talk about the starvation and the emotional aspects of my eating disorder. I mean, there was a reason I was running myself into the grave, but for now, I’m going to stick to this aspect of my eating disorder and recovery :)
I also want to point out that not everyone that goes on a diet and who works out develops an eating disorder, BUT most do develop disordered eating, a negative relationship with food and their bodies and almost everyone who has an eating disorder HAS been on a diet. The statistics are staggering as to how many people do actually go on to develop full blown eating disorders after starting diets. I believe it’s somewhere around 20-25% of people. So, to all my diet loving readers out there, I am not saying that if you go on a diet you will develop an eating disorder, I am saying that this happened to me. I WILL say though that you most likely will develop disordered eating and get stuck in the draining mentality of good food/bad foods, calorie counting and poor body image that dieting brings. I encourage you to do some research on it. It is all out there :) If you have instagram just follow the hashtag #wakeupweightwatchers or #donewithdieting and you will read a TON of stories similar to mine and from dietician and doctors about diets, the diet industry and diet culture.