Exercise During Eating Disorder Recovery

From an early age, the health benefits of regular exercise have been drilled into us. We are continually hearing that there is an obesity crisis in the UK and that this is a situation which needs to be rectified quickly due to health implications and the strain/cost on the NHS. Schools and workplaces are repeatedly being encouraged to increase opportunities for exercise and movement throughout the day. But what is often forgotten is that these initiatives aren’t suitable for everyone and we are rarely warned about the dangers of over-exercising, which can lead to negative health effects such as exhaustion, injuries and isolation.

It’s important to bear in mind that the benefits of exercise are not guaranteed, they are conditional. 

Every person is unique, so could we be doing more harm than good? Are we setting people up for more challenges and unhealthy relationships with their body?


What is compulsive exercising?

Compulsive exercising is characterised by a significant amount of physical activity, combined with a compulsive need to do the activity. Literature has recognised two forms of exercise dependence; primary and secondary.

Primary Exercise Dependance

Primary exercise dependence refers to individuals who are addicted to exercise for intrinsic reasons associated with the activity, for example, training for a marathon.

Secondary Exercise Dependance

In contrast, the key motivator in secondary exercise dependence is to control and manipulate body composition. It is this type of exercise dependence that is associated with eating disorders and negative health effects.

It is important to know that an exercise compulsion does not always signify an eating disorder, but the two may certainly accompany each other. For individuals suffering from an eating disorder, compulsive exercise can act as relief from eating/bingeing or be used to help control depression and anxiety.


How is compulsive exercise different to normal exercise?

The difference between exercising frequently and compulsively exercising isn’t necessarily about the duration or frequency of physical activity. The two most important factors are in fact impairment to normal functioning and withdrawal symptoms.

Admittedly, it is hard to recognise when your exercise habits become unhealthy, especially as the topic of exercise addiction has received little attention in recent years.


How can you tell if you’re addicted to exercise?

Have you checked in with yourself?

When new clients come to us and throughout the recovery journey, we establish what their relationship is with exercise and movement. This is something we encourage you to do too.

  • Is exercise the number one priority in your life?
  • Do you plan your day around your exercise routine and alter other work/social commitments to fit into this routine?
  • Is movement used to deplete your body?
  • Do you repeatedly exercise to the point of exhaustion?
  • Do you exercise despite illness or injury?
  • Do you put your health at risk by not resting when you should be?
  • Do you exercise for control, weight loss and punishment – to appease your unwell voice?
  • Do you experience guilt or depression when you are unable to exercise?
  • Do you experience withdrawal symptoms if you stop exercising?
  • Is movement contributing to and exacerbating stress?
  • Are you exercising to confuse or disconnect from your mind-body connection and coordination?
  • Do you exercise to alter your mood?
  • Do you over-rely on exercise to improve your mood?

It is essential to explore how you currently relate to exercise; emotionally, mentally and physically as this will also determine its appropriateness at this stage of your recovery. Your decision to return or continue to exercise should be a decision that you make with your treatment team. This will ensure you are participating in a safe level of activity for you, and that you have the right tools to be able to recognise if movement is negatively impacting your life.

If you are currently exercising regularly, check in with yourself before and after each session. How are you feeling emotionally and physically? What are your energy levels? Are you staying true to the 3 mindful movement principles – exercising for rejuvenation, to enhance your mind-body connection and to alleviate mental and physical stress?


Are you moving mindfully?

Exercise should be for pleasure and positive mental and physical health. It is vital to focus on the connection between your mind, body and emotions before and during any exercise. By feeling, not just thinking about your body’s sensations during physical activities, you can cultivate a deeper body awareness. During exercise, we can tune into our breathing, the speed and strength of our heartbeat, how our muscles contract and release and our overall level of exertion. When we can ‘hear’ our body, the more attuned we are to all its messages – such as hunger and fullness.

Walking, cycling, yoga, climbing, Pilates, Aquaphysical classes/swimming and dancing are ideal activities for mindful movement. Paying attention to your surroundings, what you can feel/see/hear and being totally present in the moment aren’t just beneficial but create a more enjoyable experience too. Being in a class or group environment is usually more fun than being on your own and stops the temptation of going back into old ways of obsessive, exhaustive exercise sessions which punish your body. However, group situations could lead to comparison, so again, check in with yourself to find out what you need.

Each time you bounce on the trampoline, become aware of your toes touching the bed and your arms raising you higher. For each stroke, as you swim, focus on your fingers entering and pulling the water. When walking, concentrate on the sounds you can hear and letting your thoughts come and go. Combining movement with a meditative or mind focusing component has been shown to reduce stress, fears and anxieties, as well as lessen feelings of isolation, body tension, chronic pain and depression. It can help you to feel both physically and mentally stronger, empowering you to feel more in control and ready to work towards recovery.

By shifting the focusing on the intrinsic pleasure of movement, you can enjoy the positivity and happiness that it brings. Movement can help you to connect to your body and feel a deep sense of gratitude. When this happens, it can be a healing part of the recovery process.


Are you getting enough rest and replenishment?

You see, to reap the benefits of exercise, you have to appreciate the effects of its physical demand. Exercise uses up nutrients and breaks down muscle tissue before it rebuilds us and makes us stronger. Therefore, the only way to truly reap the benefits of exercise is to support it with adequate nutrition and rest. For without this support, we are unable to rebuild and restore and we risk damaging our short-term and long-term health. Because of this, exercise during recovery is not appropriate if you’re not making progress nutritionally and your eating disorder symptoms and behaviours are worsening. There are times when the most self-caring thing we can do is not exercise.


What if I’m the opposite and can’t find the motivation to exercise/move?

For people who suffer from a mental illness, it can be difficult to function with everyday life let alone finding the interest and energy to get moving, but there really are mental health, social and emotional benefits. There are so many negative feelings and symptoms of mental illnesses but in the case of mild to moderate depression, regular exercise can be a more effective treatment than taking antidepressants. Here are just some of the pros:

  • Even 10 to 30 minutes of exercise each day can help increase your endorphins (otherwise known as ‘feel good’ hormones) and stimulate chemicals in your brain to allow you to feel more relaxed. This subsequently lifts your mood and can help calm anxiety and prevent panic attacks.
  • Your body is able to control cortisol (stress hormone) levels better which will help you feel less stressed and tense in your body. Strength training decreases tension and worry in the body and mind.
  • Helps boost your immune system.
  • Can help to break up racing thoughts, leaving you calmer and able to think more clearly. Your memory and concentration levels will also increase as you have clarity.
  • Provides a sense of achievement and boosts your self-confidence.
  • Feel more energised – your cardiovascular system and organs will work better, providing you with more energy.
  • Improves sleep patterns – physical activity/movement can enhance the quality of your sleep allowing you to fall asleep quicker and stay asleep longer and deeper. Even mild to moderate exercise such as walking, stretching, yoga, swimming will help!
  • An opportunity to meet new people and make friends – decreases feelings of loneliness and isolation.

If you struggle with finding the confidence and motivation, choose something you enjoy or previously enjoyed doing. It is normal to not feel like exercising and it is perfectly okay to skip an activity if your mind and body are telling you that you need to rest, or that you should do something else – finding the form of exercise that allows you to practise mindfulness and will bring you joy makes it so much easier to get moving. It’s all about listening to yourself, not your ill voice. Often even the thought of exercise can bring a sense of dread, especially for those with anxiety, but you don’t have to join a gym, a class or other group activity if you don’t want to. There are plenty of other ways to get up and get out which you can do on your own or with even just one other person whom you feel comfortable around.

The reassurance from your GP or treatment team that you’re doing a healthy level of exercise for your physical and mental state can also sometimes be enough to generate the motivation you need. They may be able to suggest some places and activities that have been created specifically for those with poor mental health in mind. Knowing there is going to be less pressure on you and no stigma will provide extra comfort. It’s important to remember that everyone gets nervous when doing something new and that everyone compares themselves or worries what others will think. In fact, most people are busy doing just this so won’t actually be paying attention to you!


If you or a loved one appears to display any of the signs of compulsive exercising, depression or anxiety, we are here to help. Reach out today.

Here at the Recover Clinic, we run a Movement Therapy Group as part of our treatment program. Anyone struggling with an eating disorder has a difficult and often very damaged relationship with their body. By participating in this group, clients can create a healthier self-image and a sense of physical freedom and safety. It is not a dance class and there is no choreography. They are designed to facilitate a healthier self-image and sense of physical freedom, which most sufferers of eating disorders are in need of, regardless of which eating disorder they are struggling with. The group focuses on bringing what is inside ‘out’ through movement and giving clients another ‘language’ through which to express themselves.It is not a dance class and there is no choreography. As with everything in eating disorder recovery, the right thing is completely unique to you, but mindful movement is a principle that can and will benefit everybody. When done in a healthy way, exercise and movement is the chance for you to reconnect with yourself and space/people around you, find enjoyment and show yourself more compassion. Don’t we all need a little more of this?

Posted in , by The Recover Clinic