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August 24, 2023

Rethinking Exercise: Joyful Movement Is Possible in Eating Disorder Recovery

Rethinking Exercise: Joyful Movement Is Possible in Eating Disorder Recovery

In our appearance-obsessed culture, exercise is often portrayed as a means to attain the “perfect” body, rather than a practice that can nourish your mind and body in ways unrelated to weight, shape, or size. As a result, societal pressures often distort the true value and potential benefits of physical activity, leading to unhealthy attitudes and behaviors related to exercise. 

When exercise becomes excessive, compulsive, or compensatory, your relationship with it has likely become disordered. In fact, overexercise is a common symptom in those with anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders. It can be a challenging process to rebuild a healthy relationship with activity once you’re in recovery. 

Learn how you might shift your mindset toward exercise and begin to embrace mindful movement instead.

Eating Disorders and Exercise

Exercise encompasses any physical activity intended to sustain or improve health and fitness. While disordered eating symptoms are a well-known aspect of eating disorders, exercise issues are also a sign of these illnesses. People with eating disorders tend to exhibit all-or-nothing thinking patterns, which can contribute to a distorted view of exercise. 

Recognizing an Unbalanced Relationship with Exercise

There are several ways that an unbalanced relationship with exercise can show up in the context of an eating disorder.  

  1. Excessive exercise: When exercise exceeds (in duration and/or intensity) what is rational or reasonable for health (depending on a person’s current health status and other individual factors), and is predominantly focused on influencing size or shape.
  2. Compulsive exercise: When exercise takes precedence over important events, takes place at inappropriate times or settings, or continues despite injury or other medical concerns.
  3. Compensatory exercise: When exercise is used to “make up” for calories consumed or as punishment for breaking any eating “rules” set by your eating disorder. 
  4. Disengagement from movement: When your eating disorder sparks an aversion to exercise, and your involvement in activity decreases.

Although exercise is often praised without conditions in our society,  it can quickly become disordered when its only purpose is maintaining or manipulating your body shape and size. Excessive or compulsive exercise can even cause health problems, such as dehydration, overuse injuries (including stress fractures, osteoporosis, and bradycardia), and arthritis, as well as worsened mental health. 

Although exercise can harm your mind and body in the midst of an eating disorder, it is possible to safely incorporate physical activity into your recovery.

Mindful Movement in Recovery

While exercise is often carried out for very specific diet-culture-related reasons, the concept of “movement” is more aligned with recovery. Mindful movement is an approach to physical activity that is motivated by genuine interest, involves joy, and prioritizes the well-being of both your body and mind. 

Here are some questions you can ask yourself when incorporating mindful movement in recovery. 

Should I talk to my care team?

When you get to a point in recovery where you feel ready to try physical activity, you should clear it with your eating disorder treatment team first. Your team can make a plan that works for you, incorporating movement that supports your recovery, and adjusting your meal plan (as needed) to fuel your activity. 

Does it matter what type of activity I do?

The “best” kind of movement for recovery is different for everyone. Your dietitian and therapist can offer recommendations based on your physical and mental state and personal preferences. 

Ask yourself these questions to brainstorm activities that feel right to you: 

  • What would movement that is aligned with my values look like? 
  • Is there a type of movement I used to enjoy? 
  • Is there a type of movement I’ve never tried that excites me?

Why even move at all?

Exercise avoidance—the opposite of excessive or compulsive exercise—can also occur in those with eating disorders. Avoidance may stem from a dislike of movement, negative body image, discomfort in settings like the gym, and/or experiences of body trauma. Due to the weight stigma that permeates our culture, people living in larger bodies, in particular, may feel judged if and when they enter a gym or even just go outside to move their bodies, which further complicates the process of building a positive relationship with movement. 

If you avoided movement altogether during your illness, you might ask yourself, why should I even move my body at all? When done mindfully and with the support of your treatment team, movement in recovery can be incredibly beneficial. Benefits of mindful movement include:

  • Improves brain function
  • Increases quality of sleep
  • Improves mood
  • Reduces stress
  • Improves body image (regardless of any changes in appearance)

All of these positive movement outcomes can aid your recovery, but they are not necessarily reasons you “should” move your body—they are simply perks if you choose to do so. In addition to these physical and mental benefits, movement can be pleasurable and even help you find community. 

Remember that your motivation for physical activity is key to making it mindful, attuned, and life-enhancing. Movement can be motivated by an authentic enjoyment for the feeling of moving intentionally in your body. Giving yourself some compassion, honoring your body’s limitations, and focusing on the process versus the outcome are all essential aspects of attuned movement. Getting to a point where you can move safely and gently takes work, but you CAN find joy in movement. 

If you are exercising despite illness or injury, feel guilty or anxious when unable to exercise, or use exercise to permit or punish eating, The Emily Program is here to help. Please give us a call at 888-364-5977, or if you prefer, we can reach out to you. Fill out our online form, and together we can find a path toward restoring your well-being.



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