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When I found out this month’s theme was Fitness, I was immediately hit with a severe case of writer’s block and self-doubt. I thought to myself, “What healthy advice could I possibly offer about healthy exercise?” You see, my relationship with exercise is very complex and it hasn’t always been pretty.
My relationship with exercise is so complicated, in fact, that in over two years of eating disorder recovery I have not been able to go to the gym or do anything more than mindful walking without abusing it. The irony is, however, that I have never been athletic. There is a false perception that only athletic people get involved in compulsive exercise, but I have learned through my struggles that this is not always the case.
I have always been a picky eater and been a bit weird about food even prior to my eating disorder, but I would never have suspected I would be the type of person to become addicted to exercise. I was the kid on the playground who hated playing tag, because I was a slow runner and always got stuck being “it.” I was the kid that, during soccer practice, plopped down on the grass and looked for four-leaf clovers. I was the kid who hated summer camp because I despised capture the flag and sports.
I wasn’t lazy; I enjoyed figure skating, nature walks and playing with my puppy, but my true passions and talents were in creative pursuits such as music, drama, and writing.
What changed everything for me? My eating disorder. Suddenly I was motivated to move my body as much as possible, not for fun and fitness and endorphins, but for the purpose of burning calories and shrinking my body. Cardio and crunches became an obsession, but everyday activities such as walking my dog, going dancing, and even sexual activity were also twisted into opportunities to burn more calories.
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Exercise didn’t feel like a license to eat either; in fact, it intensified my fear of food. When I worked out I made myself restrict even more than I usually did, because I was terrified that eating “too much” would “ruin all of my hard work.”
Because I wasn’t an athlete I would push myself to my physical limit when it came to working out, but my limit was considerably less than people who were more athletic than me. In fact, for some people, the amount of exercise I was doing could be considered healthy. Looking back, I realize that compulsive exercise and over-exercise looks different for everyone because all of our bodies have different capabilities. In addition, while I was exercising a healthy amount for someone who ate a healthy amount, I was exercising too much for someone who was severely restricting.
I hope my story can help compulsive exercisers who are in denial realize that it is possible to have a very significant problem without fitting the stereotype of what compulsive exercise looks like. If exercise and thoughts of exercise are controlling your life and negatively impacting your physical and mental health, it doesn’t matter what kind of exercise you do or how much: you have a problem and you should seek help as soon as possible.
Although I have not yet been able to incorporate intense physical activity back into my life, I have made considerable progress. I walk many places and I am learning to enjoy it for healthy reasons, and I am in no rush to add intense exercise back into my life before I feel ready. I know that I will add more exercise back into my life when the time is right, and I also know that I never need to step foot in a gym again if I don’t want to.
My dietitian who is also a certified personal trainer assures me that I can lead a healthy lifestyle through activities I enjoy, such as walking, hiking, and ice skating. Running on the treadmill is not the only way to achieve a healthy amount of moderate exercise, and truly believing that for the first time is very empowering.
It is possible to achieve balance in eating and exercise, and I am on my way there.
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