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How do I develop a healthy relationship with exercise? I’ve been on both sides of the spectrum – over exercising and not exercising at all. I’m currently not exercising because I hate it so much, but I know my body needs movement. What should I do?
Moving our bodies is certainly something that can make us feel really good. However, as you’ve experienced, over-exercising can lead to a negative relationship with exercise and be quite detrimental to physical health. It is not uncommon for those who over-exercise to also have periods of no exercise and it can be very difficult to find a healthy balance.
Firstly, I advise speaking to your doctor and an exercise physiologist to check it is safe for you to re-commence exercising. Over-exercising places you at risk of repetitive strain injuries, stress fractures, and heart complications. If you have/are experiencing any of these, your doctor and exercise physiologist can offer safety precautions you may need to take whilst exercising.
In conjunction with any recommendations from your health professionals, I strongly suggest starting slowly. Exercise at a low intensity (eg walking rather than running) and for short durations; a 10 minute walk is fine. As your body adapts, you can increase the intensity, duration, and frequency. Keep in mind though, exercise does not need to be hard or for long periods to be beneficial. For most people, moderate intensity and a maximum of five hours per week is appropriate. I also encourage you to get rid of any movement trackers (eg wrist bands, calorie counters, and fitness apps) which may be triggering for you and listen to what your body is telling you instead.
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Beyond the physical, finding a healthy relationship with exercise has a strong psychological component. As you hate exercising at the moment, you may find it helpful to think about ‘moving’ your body rather than ‘exercising.’ In my clinical experience, many people associate the word ‘exercise’ with structured and high intensity gym workouts, often focussed on calorie burning or aesthetics. On the contrary, the word ‘movement’ is a lot gentler, less structured, and is focussed on feeling good.
To help you ‘move’ rather than ‘exercise,’ endeavour to try different activities and in different environments from those you engaged in whilst over-exercising.
Some suggestions are:
- Go for a walk whilst catching up with friends
- Take up a dance class (I do ballet and love it!)
- Walk or ride to work/school
- Join a social sports team
- Engage in activities like ten-pin bowling, a game of tennis with friends, indoor rock climbing, or indoor trampolining
- Kayaking or hiking whilst also exploring nature.
- Try a yoga or stretch class (yoga is often very helpful for those with/recovering from an eating disorder, body image concerns, and/or over-exercising).
It’s perfectly ok to let these sorts of activities be your sole form of movement for the rest of your life. They will provide you with so many physical, mental, emotional, and social benefits. Should you later feel confident that you have a healthy relationship with exercise and you would find exercising in a gym environment at higher intensities to be enjoyable, go for it! However, it’s not a necessity, nor an expectation you need to hold for yourself.
As a guide, you may like to start aiming for half an hour of enjoyable movement, two to three times per week or 10-20 minutes of movement daily. Of course, adjust these amounts to suit your lifestyle and needs. Be kind to yourself if it doesn’t always happen as planned, it will take time to rebuild a positive and enjoyable relationship with movement.
Disclaimer: This column is meant to serve as a safe place to ask questions and get opinions from educated professionals; but please always consult your own team before making any changes to your medication, activities, or recovery process. Although our Experts are certified professionals in their area, their advice may not be suitable for your situation, and thus is not to be taken in place of that given by your recovery team and/or family doctor or personal therapist. Please use your own good judgment, and consult a licensed mental health practitioner for specific treatment. In case of a crisis, please do not rely on this column, as answers may take several weeks to be published, and not all questions will be addressed. Please contact one of the Helplines listed in our Resources section if you feel you are a harm to yourself or in need of emergency support.
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