Sweating the Small Stuff: Working Out and ED Recovery
Disclaimer: I'm not a nutritionist, a therapist, or a doctor. I'm not a trainer, a psychic, or a reiki master. I'm not a Recovered person telling you how wonderful Recovery is and how you yourself should Recover. I'm just a girl with a blog, a history of disordered eating, and lots and lots of hours of therapy under my belt.
Due to the influence of a few athletic friends, I've recently decided to get myself on a regular exercise regimen. Like most people, I've had periods of exercising in the past when I've done quite well for several months before getting overwhelmed with school and falling off again. I'd also associated exercise with some of my unhealthiest periods of disordered eating, when I tried to erase the calories I ate with exercise as a kind of punishment for myself. So this time, I decided to do some research and try to find a weekly routine from my pal the internet that I could stick to when first forcing my sedentary body back into action.
An amateur search for exercise routines online becomes rapidly and explicitly gendered, and I noticed was that any female-bodied suggestions were focused, more than anything else, on losing weight. While exercise routines for male bodies were used words like "training", "building", and "endurance", workouts for women were not only filled with guarantees of weight loss, size reduction, and "slimming"/"shaping", they were also filled with ads about how to "melt" your belly fat away (with only this pill!). And while this was not particularly surprising, I was also able to find a small disclaimer at the bottom of nearly every article stating that people with certain illnesses, heart problems, or a history of eating disorders should consult a physician before embarking on any of the suggested programs.
This led me into a dark, weird void where I tried to search for any helpful advice on working out WITH a history of eating disorders and found absolutely zilch. The consensus among people in recovery tended to be "don't", while hundreds of pro-ana blogs peppered my search with helpful suggestions about how to get yourself work out on 300 calories a day, posting pictures of skeletal #inspo.
None of this was particularly helpful, so I asked my therapist about it. What follows is a combination of her suggestions and other strategies I've figured out as I'm going along.
1. Pick one measurement for your progress - and ignore the rest.
One of my main difficulties with working out on gym equipment is the temptation to measure my progress by calories burned. This easily slips into calorie-counting behavior outside the gym and sends me into the obsessive, number-dependent eating that I am trying to avoid. So while most gym machines have a calorie counter on them that can't always be turned off, they can be covered. When I get on the elliptical, I use whatever towel or paper offered to wipe down my machine and drape it over the calorie counter so I can't see it. I then measure my progress by time spent on the machine (distance works just as well). It may seem silly, or overly simple, but it's made a world of difference for me.
2. Stop comparing your body to others'.
Well gee thanks, Sahalie, I'm cured. Not.
Now I know that this is one of the hardest things in the world to do. Most of us don't even remember how old we were when we first thought "X is skinnier/prettier/hotter/fitter than me. I wish I looked like X." And the gym, especially the locker room, can be one of the worst places for this, because there will always, ALWAYS, be someone next to you sprinting their twelfth mile, dripping with the sweat of physical superiority.
There are a few different ways you can handle this. You can look at Mx. Twelve Mile as your goal - "someday, if I work hard, that could be me". For some people, this works. My issue with this is knowing that at peak fitness, my body still will not look like someone else's at peak fitness. So instead, I like to think that while they are more successful when it comes to exercise, I probably have other things I'm better at in my life, and this may never be as prominent a measurement of success for me as it is for them. This is on a good day. If I am feeling particularly insecure about my own 15 minute mile, I convince myself that they and their exquisite human form are going home only to an apartment of cats that night.
3. Don't beat yourself up for missing a day.
Those of us with a history of ED tend to be goal-driven perfectionists, the side effect of which is that we can feel like we have completely failed at a task because it is not going according to plan. If I tell myself I want to go to the gym X number of times a week and then don't, I tend to want to give up entirely. I convince myself that I will never manage to keep it up long enough to make any difference and I might as well just give up now. But missing a day is not a reset button! It doesn't erase your progress or make it harder to go the next day. It just is.
4. Try some new machines.
Like I mentioned earlier, a lot of gym culture, especially as a woman, is focused on weight loss, mostly translating into cardio work. But focusing on different parts of your body is healthy, and trying something new might put more spark and excitement into your workouts. Ladies, brave the weight room! Men, the elliptical is a joint-safe alternative that will do wonders for your butt! Non-binary and gender fluid friends, the gym is your oyster! And if you're not sure how to use a machine, ask a staff member to show you - I promise that you won't look dumb for asking, and it will keep you from hurting yourself.