Whether you’re in recovery or trying to improve your relationship with your body/food/movement, it can be difficult to gauge if you should be exercising and why you’re actually doing it. This can be even more complex and confusing if you’re starting a new workout/routine and have struggled with disordered thinking/behaviors in the past.
As someone with orthorexia, my relationship with exercise is…complicated. During my disorder I worked out for the sole purpose of burning calories and feeling productive, all in the pursuit of “perfect health.” There was nothing mindful or positive about my relationship with movement and it was extremely difficult to break the compulsive cycle. If you’re in recovery or have struggled with your mindset/behaviors towards exercise in the past, know you are definitely not alone and it takes time to cope with and work on these unhealthy thoughts/behaviors. While I feel now that I’m able to engage in mindful movement and do it for the right reasons, there are still days where I feel guilty for not working out or like I “should” do more. For the most part, though, my relationship with exercise has been restored to a healthy place.
To keep myself in-check and make sure I’m moving for the right reasons, I ask myself these questions pretty regularly. Here they are:
P.S. A full, specific article on exercise for those who are in recovery is coming soon- but just know that before you incorporate movement into your life, you should let your treatment team/support system know!
Am I doing this to alter my body?
If you’re exercising and your main reason is to alter your body/weight, you should look a little deeper into that. Are you experiencing negative body image, emotions, or thoughts about food/yourself? Have outside influences (friends, family, external/internal fatphobia, social media, etc.) caused you to feel triggered or like you need to change your body? It’s a good idea to think about why you’re feeling like you need to change your body and work on that root cause versus continuing to workout with disordered intentions.
Plus, and I’ll say this several hundred more times on this blog: diets don’t work.
Is this beneficial to my mental health as well?
Dropping a jeans size won’t make your life any better! If you’re working out but being mentally drained and damaging your mental health along the way- what are you really adding to your life? An eating disorder/disordered eating?
Sometimes we have to do things we don’t enjoy, like cleaning or running errands- but working out isn’t one of them. If you hate running or hate swimming or whatever it may be- don’t do it! There are so many different activities out there for you to try and enjoy that have the potential to feel and be good for you. Chances are that if your exercise regime is not benefitting your mental health, there’s an underlying reason you’re moving that isn’t mindful to begin with. Maybe you’re trying to escape stress or feel “productive,” or maybe you’re trying to change your weight. Again, ask yourself why you’re feeling these things and why you’re engaging in something that isn’t kind to your mind so you can deal with that (the root of the problem) first.
Do I enjoy the movement or am I doing it out of compulsion/habit?
Compulsion can very easily be confused for having fun and enjoying something- trust me. I used to run all the time and I thought I was getting so much out of it and loving it so much, but really I was getting deeper into my ED. If you feel unproductive or like you absolutely can’t not exercise, whether it’s a specific one or not, you may be struggling with compulsive exercise. This is a bit tricky because it’s not quite the same as feeling guilty for not exercising- it’s doing anything to exercise, although someone who struggles with compulsive exercise may feel guilty for not doing as much as they “should” or not being able to exercise. A few examples are working out instead of another activity you usually enjoy, feeling intense anxiety/panic if you can’t (or think you won’t be able to) exercise, planning your day around your workout, and being rigid in your movement- among other things. Especially for people with OCD, exercise has the potential to be compulsive and this can be dangerous for you physically and mentally!
Am I flexible with my fitness?
Rigidity is a key element of eating disorders and disordered eating. It very much applies when deciding whether or not your movement is disordered! If you are very black and white or “strict” with your workout regime, you may be doing it for the wrong reasons or using it as a maladaptive behavior. A few examples of this are working out on a machine until you hit a specific calorie goal, refusing/not feeling like you can change the time/place/type of workout, working your entire day around your workout, feeling extremely lazy/guilty for not exercising, and only wanting to work out alone so you aren’t monitored/outdone/”distracted.”
Am I fueling my body properly to go with said movement?
Real talk: restricting your calories can cause you to decrease your metabolism, weaken your immune system, experience nutrient deficiencies, decrease your fertility, and weaken your bones. Cutting out calories, restriction, starvation- whatever you want to call it- is no joke. It’s dangerous! If you do increase your movement or engage in more strenuous exercise, you need to make sure you’re fueling your body- not depleting it. You wouldn’t want your car to run on empty, so don’t do it to yourself, either. If you’re struggling with eating enough or having urges to restrict or engage in other behaviors that make it difficult to eat, reach out to your treatment team and take a break from movement until you can have a more positive relationship with it.
Mindful movement and having a good relationship with exercise is so important because how we treat and feel about our bodies impacts us on the daily! These questions have helped me and hopefully will help you assess your relationship with exercise (and get help if you need to). If you want to know more about mindful movement, check out my article on it here.
All content on RecovRoad is based on personal experiences, research, and ideas. Please do not repost/share without credit and be aware that nothing on this blog takes the place of professional help. This is also a formal trigger warning: content about and relating to eating disorders may be triggering to survivors. Please see the “RESOURCES” tab, call the National Eating Disorders Association hotline at 800-931-2237, and remember to take care of yourself.