Finding Balance with Exercise in Recovery
Growing up, exercise was a huge part of my childhood. I was the kid who played three sports competitively, five sports leisurely, and always had to be on the go. Both of my parents were college athletes so I have natural athleticism and coordination that enabled me to excel at pretty much every sport I tried. Soccer? Check. Basketball? Yep. Tennis. Game-set-match. Swimming? Well, I wasn’t too fond of getting my hair wet but it was exercise and I was good at it so why the hell not?
When my eating disorder crept into my life at age thirteen, my relation with exercise drastically changed. It was no longer a fun, social activity but rather an unhealthy, inflexible compulsion. It got to the point where I was exercising four-to-five hours a day and doing so not out of enjoyment but strictly to burn calories. If I missed a workout or run, I’d feel horrible about myself and default to restriction to cope. I was eating so little then that I was constantly weak and tired—and still, I couldn’t stop exercising.
It took my treatment team putting their foot down to break the self-destruct cycle I’d slipped in to. I was pulled out of Travel soccer, I was banned from going on runs, and my parents made me keep my door open at all times so I couldn’t get away with obsessive crunches or jumping jacks behind their backs. In fact, the only exercise I was permitted to do was going on walks around my block—and considering it was late-November and I had very little insulation, I wasn’t too keen on that idea.
I went from having a toxic relationship with exercise to no relationship at all—for five years! Sure, I went on leisurely walks and bike rides (when it wasn’t freezing of course), taught myself basic yoga, and played some casual games of basketful or tennis but that was the extent of it. I thought my days of being an athlete were behind me, just another thing my eating disorder had ruined forever. Then, just last year, my family got a membership to a local gym with an indoor track. I was in a much better place in my recovery and trusted that I could moderate my amount of activity, so I took to walking around it on days when it was too cold to be outside. After a short while, I progressed to jogging. I was awful at first—no surprise there, considering how long it had been since the last time I went on a run—but I kept at it nevertheless, determined to improve my cardio no matter how long it took. And that’s exactly what I did.
This past year has taught me that exercise—in moderation—is truly amazing. In addition to getting me out of the house and maintaining good physical health, I’ve noticed a significant improvement in my mental wellbeing since I’ve taken to running regularly. Exercise releases endorphins, which increase feelings of happiness and euphoria while simultaneously decreasing pain and stress. It turns out my eighth grade therapist wasn’t just talking out of her ass when she told me those walks around the block would improve my mood!
Exercise has also bettered my body image. For the years that followed my diagnosis, I struggled with body dysmorphia and genuinely believed I was overweight despite all the facts and figures pointing to the opposite. Partly because I’ve been weight restored for so long and partly because I’m exercising more regularly and as a result building strength and endurance, my relationship with my body has become much kinder and respectful. I won’t be posting lingerie pictures on Instagram anytime soon but I’m okay with the way I look; I’ve accepted it. There was a time in my life, not too long ago, when I never imagined that would be the case again but here we are!
That being said, I have to make a conscious effort to stay on top of my personality traits and triggers that could turn exercise into a compulsion again. This means sticking to a schedule, listening to my body, and not pushing myself to run faster and work harder when I’m not feeling up for it. It means eating more to replenish the calories I’m burning; something that was initially very challenging but is slowly becoming second-nature. It means not feeling bummed or stressed if I miss a workout but instead understanding that that happens when you’re trying to lead a balanced life.
And that’s really what I keep circling back to: balance. The age-old saying that everything (besides hard drugs, cigarettes, etc.) is good in moderation is one I strive to live by from the food I eat to the ratio I strike between work and relaxation to my newfound appreciation and participation in exercise. Of course it’s easier said than done but when you find that balance, I promise you’ll feel so much happier and healthier as a result.