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Top tips for engaging in exercise when you are recovering from an eating disorder

Image credit: Representation Matters

Are you trying to improve your relationship with exercise whilst in recovery for an eating disorder? We asked some of our amazing colleagues to share their top ideas on how you can do this. Thanks to each of them for so generously sharing their expertise!

Anna Hearn from Haven Women’s Fitness & Yoga Studio

  • Change perspective. Many who are experiencing an eating disorder may hold a negative association between exercise, weight loss and control. Perhaps they’ve exercised purely to shed or control weight, with a focus on calories burnt and a sense of punishment and pushing their bodies beyond it’s happy limits. Does thought of exercise conjure up negative connotations of rules, punishment, obsession, force or dislike? This is a time to establish a new relationship with exercise. Scrap any old beliefs about exercise and start afresh from a new lense – one that recognises the value of movement in supporting recovery from the perspective of health and self-care, not weight.
  • Tune into your body and move intuitively. Take an intuitive approach as you seek movement at the pace and depth that feels right for you. With this new perspective and without the rules of a weight-centric approach, you have no goals to reach, so you’re free to explore what feels good in your body rather than be dictated by external rules. Our bodies are wise and listening in for their valuable signals helps strengthen your mind-body connection. Let your body be your guide, be gentle and pay attention to what your it is calling for – honour when your body needs to stop. Let self-care and enjoyment be your only motivator. Adequate rest is essential so enjoy and honour this too
  • Practice self-compassion and body-respect. Overhauling your relationship with exercise in one giant sweep isn’t realistic, so be gentle and compassionate towards yourself as you cultivate new ways of moving and of thinking about exercise that may initially feel foreign. Offer yourself the same understanding and kindness you would offer a loved one if they were working through something challenging. As your body moves, notice any judging thoughts that may arise, and gently bring awareness to the functionality of the body. Stop for a moment and recognise the unseen work the body is executing on a moment-by-moment basis to keep you moving throughout your day. Our bodies masterfully execute so many actions, such as laughing, speaking, walking, absorbing information and also performs vitally important tasks for us – all in just a thousandth of a second in a flawless manner – without a conscious thought from us! Take a  moment to ponder the miracle of this and invite gratitude into your thoughts.
  • Fill your cup through your other talents! Seek other hobbies that don’t relate to exercising. Discovering soulful ways to spend your time that make you happy and feel good about yourself can be a giant boost in recovery. Maybe you have a forgotten creative side, or love volunteering and helping others. It’s amazing how freeing up time valuable mental real estate previously spent on thinking about body or food, or over-exercising can help you discover what’s really important and fulfilling to you.

Alanah Dobinson from the Centre for Integrative Health

  • Know that you do not have to completely abstain from exercise, because we now know that this can cause more harm than good. If in doubt, a light stretch in your bed can be beneficial to your physical and mental wellbeing, if accompanied by a trusted family member, friend or clinician.
  • Identify and work through your unhealthy exercise beliefs with an experienced exercise and eating disorder professional before re-engaging in planned exercise. This can involve trying some organised behavioural experiments to test the eating disorder validity and to reshape movement experiences in a way which serves to support, not harm, your wellbeing. It can also involve education about your physiology and the impact exercise has on your functioning during recovery.
  • Know that recovery is slow, and therefore so is getting back into exercise. It is critical to accept this, and is in fact the most savvy way to move forward.
  • Create an ‘intuitive movement checklist’ to help you decide for yourself which types of exercise to do safely, and when. To begin, enlist the help of your family, friends and treating clinician to identify a list of things you can check through before deciding whether or not to engage in different types of movement. For example, one checklist item may ask you to check if you have eaten your required meals today, meaning that if you have not, it may be a good idea to adjust your movement plan accordingly. Another item may ask you to assess the purpose for the exercise (ie. to serve the ED or to serve your health, and in which ways).
  • Engage a team of eating disorder clinicians in your journey toward reintegrating exercise, such as an accredited exercise physiologist, GP, psychologist, dietitian and/or occupational therapist.

Lu-Lu Thompson from Mind Body Mojo

Integrating exercise or movement back into a routine when you’re in recovery can be challenging, here are my top tips to help you get started.

  • Start slow, and have a plan and stick to it. Work on integrating one movement session into your normal routine and feeling comfortable with that before building to the next one. Work out the time frame you want to exercise for – 45 mins to 1 hour and plan what you will do during this time. Don’t start haphazardly as you’re more likely to overdo or under do it. After each session review and reflect on what feelings came up for you? If you have a support team share your feelings with them. A lot of people have found Yoga to be very beneficial during Recovery. Yoga can help to quieten the mind whilst also bringing awareness to your body position, muscles and movements. It can be challenging to sit in silence but it gets easier with time and practice. If you can I would recommend adding yoga into your schedule once a week either in a class or there are many classes you can access online.
  • Don’t feel pressured to do what everyone else is doing, movement doesn’t have to be in a gym and it doesn’t have to be hot and sweaty. Think about movement as something that brings pleasure and fun and take the focus away from calories burnt. Some activities that you might like to consider are trying a dance classes, hip-hop, salsa, contemporary. If you can try something outdoors bushwalking, kayaking or SUP. If you like sky high movement Ariel silks, acrobatics and even adult gymnastics are really fun options.
  • If you are thinking about going into a gym environment a group class can be a fun environment with music, choreography and a good social environment. They are time capped and classes usually go for 45 minutes or 1 hour. It is important to be aware of your triggers, avoid classes that focus on calories burnt, heart rate monitors or competing against each other. Also be aware that some instructors will also use food or body shaming as ways to motivate clients, this is not okay, if this occurs I suggest you leave the class.
  • For resistance training I highly recommend getting the support of a trainer who has an understanding of eating disorders. Resistance training is great for strengthening bones, muscles, ligaments and can help to make a mind muscle connection which creates mindful movement. Having a structured program can help you to track your progress and also keep you from feeling confused or overwhelmed by all the machines and weights. Growing in strength and feeling what your body can do over how it appears can be wonderful part of recovery.
  • Ditch the fitness trackers and avoid spending too much time in the cardio area, the constant display of calories is not beneficial for anyone. The benefits of taking a walk outside in fresh air include mental clarity, reduced stress and anxiety and improved focus. Set aside 30 minutes and see if you can focus on the smells, sights and sounds around you. There are also some mindfulness apps that focus on ‘mindful walking’

Sarah King from SK Active

As someone who has personally recovered from an eating disorder and also working with those in recovery from an eating disorder, returning to exercise can be an exciting time. However, there are a few things to keep in mind to ensure your recovery keeps moving in the right direction. My top tips for engaging in exercise during recovery are:

      • Don’t let the ‘rules’ rule you. Exercise often turns into a regimented pattern during an eating disorder, so it’s important to change the way you think about physical activity. Ideally exercise should become kind of like brushing your teeth. Brushing your teeth for 2 minutes, twice a day keeps them healthy, but overdoing it can wear away the enamel on your teeth. Exercise is much the same! You want to engage in a small bouts throughout the week, but allow your body time to rest and recover, which allows you to get the full benefits of improved heart health, better energy during the day, restorative sleep at night, as well as increases in bone mineral density.
      • Get to know the myths from the facts. Our beliefs about exercise often shape why we do it in the first place. One part of my job that I love is dispelling common myths such as ‘all bodyfat is unhealthy’ or ‘you have to be thin in order to be fit or healthy’. Once we debunk these myths in our minds, we can replace them with more helpful scientific ones that support recovery. For example, did you know that as little as 20 minutes of moderate intensity exercise can boost your mood? Talking to an accredited exercise physiologist about some of these concerns can help you let go of unfounded myths.
      • Find a happy medium. If you’ve not been exercising for a while, it’s important to build a base of fitness back slowly. A simple 10 – 20 minute walk and home stretches are a good place to start. Conversely if you’ve been overdoing it, cutting back slowly and learning to balance exercise with rest is important.
      • Understand incidental movement is still exercise. If you are generally active in your everyday life, additional exercise may not be necessary. Walking to the shops or the train station, or having a job that requires you to be on your feet definitely counts towards your physical activity.
      • Do things you enjoy. This is where you can experiment and figure out what activities you love to do. Some of my clients were runners during the peak of their eating disorders, but actually came to the realisation during recovery that they didn’t even enjoy it! Exercise benefits our mental health much more if we engage in activities that we look forward to. Some good examples include going for a walk with friends or family, trying out a new type of class such as yoga or Pilates, or joining a social sport.
      • Match your output with your intake. Keeping up with adequate fluids and food around your exercise is important. This will ensure you have sufficient energy to participate in whatever activity you choose, and will give your body the building blocks it needs to recover, so you optimise your physical and mental health. If you’re unsure whether you’re hitting the mark, seek advice from an Accredited Practicing Dietitian.

Eleni Psillakis from Brazengrowth

      • Check your thoughts about yourself before engaging in exercise! These thoughts may be nothing to do with body weight, size or shape. Check these 3 things: 1. what is the evidence that these thoughts are true?; 2. Are these thoughts necessary?; 3. Do these thoughts improve moments of silence? If you answered ‘No’ to any of the above – Use a STOP sign every time you think these thoughts
      • Check your real motivation for exercising. If you are engaging in exercise do to guilt or purely to burn calories, then I recommend speaking to an allied health professional and/or focusing on the many benefits of appropriate exercise such as improving strength, metabolism, flexibility, posture and improving mental health, without causing anxiety.
      • Incorporate a variety of exercise formats. Including a variety such as strength training, stretching and yoga, walking, swimming or cycling. These could be done on different days and ensure you have rest times and days. If your motivation to exercise and your thoughts about yourself are fear, guilt or shame based, these may lead to unhealthy exercise behaviors.
In conclusion, do you notice any themes? We certainly do!
We would love to know, what have you found most helpful to improve your relationship with exercise during recovery from an eating disorder?