I was wondering if you have any advice for former sufferers of eating disorders in regards to exercise/joining a gym? I have a history of disordered eating and I very often used exercise (specifically running and exercise videos) pretty excessively. I’ve tried things like joining groups where they focus on healthy eating and exercise before I found body positivity and I always seem to find myself falling back into old habits of obsessing over calories and over exercising... my husband has been talking about joining a gym and I’ve been thinking about joining with him, but I’m wondering if there is a safe way to do it?
I don't talk about this all too often, but exercise addiction is something that I struggled with for a very long time, throughout my eating disorder and beyond.
As a culture we're pretty shit at recognising that even things that are 'good for us' can reach a point where they're doing more harm than good. Exercise addiction isn't taken as seriously as it should be because it's so easy to dismiss as dedication, strength, the epitome of health. Back when I was forcing my body through gruelling daily workouts that left me barely able to move, I was constantly asked what the secret was. How did I keep it up? Where did I get the will power?
The truth that nobody seemed to consider is that I didn't feel like I had a choice. My entire existence revolved around the numbers I put into my body and the numbers I burned out of it, and those workouts weren't optional. In fact, at my worst it felt as if not doing them would make me implode. I planned every social event around them. I worked out through injuries. I always did the most intense workout possible and ignored every time the instructor said to take a break. I was hooked, I was destroying my mental health, not to mention putting my body in danger as well.
The reason I'm sharing this with you is because I don't want you to underestimate how serious a disordered relationship with exercise is. I don't want you to minimise your experiences or shrug them off as insignificant. This is a real problem, and one that needs more recognition, especially with fitspo still reigning supreme on social media. And most of all, I want you to be really sure, before you join the gym or restart any work out routine, that you're truly healed enough to be ready. Because it's okay if you're not.
It is okay to be still for as long as you need to be. It is okay to prioritise your mental health. It's okay to take as much time away from working out as you need. And if/when you're ready to re-incorporate exercise into your life, here's my advice:
1. Reframe what working out means to you.
Exercise should not be something that we force ourselves to do as a punishment for how our bodies look. We do not need to punish our bodies for how they look. Instead, we can work at finding the joy in movement that was once there before all the numbers came and took it away. Moving in ways that bring us joy and focuses on how our bodies feel, rather than how they look, is the best way to make sure our mental wellbeing isn't compromised in the process. I'd recommend getting a copy of Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon as well as Hanne Blank's The Fat Girl's Guide to Exercise and other Incendiary Acts.
2. Go slow. Seriously.
It's easy to fall back into the trap of the all-or-nothing work out mentality where anything less than 100mph isn't good enough. But you don't need to follow those rules anymore. When I was ready to bring more movement into my life I started with walking. And I worked at training my mind to be truly present, so instead of tallying up numbers or body shaming myself on the go, I was really appreciating what was around me – looking at the trees, smelling the air, feeling the breeze, taking deep breaths and noticing how the energy of my body felt. Basically, I was being mindful. And although walking mindfully is something I never used to see as 'enough', it's where I needed to start, and where I stayed until I was sure that I'd be okay doing more.
3. Listen to your body, listen to your mind, and be honest with yourself.
Simple in theory, harder in practice. You are the only person who will be able to tell whether old disordered habits are creeping back, and if they are, it's your responsibility to be honest with yourself and to stop. Even if you're telling yourself that you should be fine, there is no shame in admitting that you're not, that you need to take a break, that you need to allow yourself to be still again. There is no required pace for this process. And protecting your recovery is the most important thing.
So if you're ready, go get your gym on. If not, that's cool too. Either way, your value as a person doesn't change, and your body will always be beyond good enough.
Love & bopo,