Returning to Exercise after Exercise Addiction and/or Disordered Eating

I’ve been rolling this blog post around in my mind for months now.  My original intention was to journal how I was feeling, but then I found such great resources and articles that I felt like it needed to be a blog post.  Rather than change a personal journal entry into a sterile blogpost by removing all my own feelings and experiences, I’ve found middle ground between sharing some of my own personal thoughts with professional recommendations.  In all honesty, because I have such personal experiences with all the topics I blog about, I feel pretty inauthentic if I don’t add personal stories here and there.  I sincerely hope that this article reaches those who need it; I’ve found a lot of peace in processing my thoughts here and I hope the same for you.  

I’ve shared a lot about my really difficult struggle with orthorexia and mentioned briefly my concurrent exercise addiction.  For those of you who have never heard of an exercise addiction before or are interested in learning more (especially as it relates to Orthorexia or other disordered eating patterns), I would direct you HERE and HERE.  

Very, very restrictive eating combined with very, very excessive exercise did a number on my physical and mental health.  I was fully committed to a full recovery, which I knew (for me) meant totally and completely making peace with ALL foods and taking a LONG break from exercise.  At the time, those were the two things that scared me most and weren’t easy to do, but were most definitely worth it as I looked at the bigger picture of health and wellness.  

I am blessed to say that I am at a very healthy place with food.  I am also so grateful that I have the physical stamina (from adequate nutrition, weight restoration and exercise cessation) to say yes to my husband and kids when they ask to play tennis or basketball or pickleball or go for a hike or walk.  I remember coming home from the gym with absolutely no energy to do anything active with them, and having no mental energy outside of obsessing about food (which makes since I was literally starving).  Any so-called “exercise” I have done in the past 3-4ish years has been just that - playing with my kids.  And I have loved every. single. minute.  

Before I go on I do want to make it really clear - I absolutely feel that exercise can, is and should be, a healthy behavior.  My reasons for not engaging in anything outside of being active with friends and family isn’t because there is anything wrong with that (or that I think I have to), but because I was not in a place physically or mentally where I could handle it.  Issues with food or exercise aren’t easily diagnosed by only observing behavior.  Two people could be eating or exercising the same and while it may cause one person extreme anxiety, the other may maintain a peaceful and flexible relationship with both.  If a choice you are making turns into a compulsion or a list of food/exercise rules you can never break without feeling anxious or out of control, it’s likely unhealthy.  

But the past few months I have been thinking more and more about exercise.  I miss it for sure.  I really do love it, and always have, even before it took a nosedive.  I like sweating, I like the feeling of my heart beating fast, of feeling strong and getting consistently better as I practice something (you may not identify with those same sentiments, and you don’t have - there’s lots of ways to and reasons for loving exercise).  I’ve come to know that it’s OK to love all those things, but my challenge will be in staying moderate, flexible and away from reactive, habitual and compulsive patterns.  I’ve come a long way in being able to do that in a lot of areas of my life (even outside of food and exercise) so I have a lot of confidence that I will be able to do so.  

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to keep exercise positive and safe for me, as a way to mentally prepare for what might lie ahead.  I’ve stumbled across so many great articles that discusses this very topic and I would like to include a few here for you:

Exercise Addiction - How To Know If You’ve Crossed The Line Between Health and Obsession
Why Getting Bigger Can Be A Better Fitness Goal Than Getting Smaller
8 Ways to Keep Your Workouts Body Positive
The Reality of Exercise After an Eating Disorder

Here’s what I have concluded:

  1. The idea of exercising for strength really resonates with me.  While some may still equate that with aesthetics, I really don’t.  I’ve done a lot of work around not identifying myself by how I look, but rather about how I feel and act and think.  I want to be strong in those ways.  
  2. Obviously I will be starting off really, really slowly.  But generally speaking, it might be best for me to participate in group fitness classes (and the like) where there is a start and end time, as opposed to exercising by myself.  If you’ve read any of the articles I have linked above, you know that exercise addiction typically means exercising for longer and longer and needing more and more to produce the same sense of “accomplishment”.  I also like the recommendation of capping exercise at 45 minutes to an hour at the most (while not needing even that much). 
  3. I am one to do things based on my own value system rather than need external validation.   I’m very convinced I am at a place where I can exercise for the sake of feeling well rather than for competition (a far cry from my orthorexic, perfectionistic days) or using any sort of “fitspiration” for motivation.  I would encourage you to find the same!  
  4. Avoid making exercise about food. Ever. It gets messy when you do. It’s not to pay penance or used as punishment for overeating or to burn calories.  In fact, be sure to match your food with your exercise - I will definitely need to eat more if I become more active (and you will too).  
  5. I guess there is always something to be said for trying new things, but always do what you love when it comes to exercise.  Find YOUR thing.  Just like with nutrition, we have some basic recommendations for exercise.  Take that and apply it in a way that works for you; there is no one-size-fits-all (just like nutrition).  The recommendation really is to be physically active in some way - If you love playing with your kids for physical activity, that’s all you need to do (and all I would need to do too).  

In all honesty, I’m not totally convinced that my body is 100% ready for exercise (even starting small and slowly - I did a lot of damage guys).  There is also a lot of trauma around exercise that I am still trying to process (the reason for journaling my thoughts).  But I am feeling so much better as I think about exercise positively, just as I have done with food and weight.  

At the end of the day, what I eat and how I move is NOT who I am.  It feels good to know that; I hope you know that too.

Emily Fonnesbeck RD,CD

*Please note - if you are currently recovering from an eating disorder, please discuss returning to exercise with your treatment team.  Weight restoration, consistent and adequate food patterns, a stable heart and regular menstruation are necessary prior to doing so.