Before You Hit the Gym in 2020
It’s the season after the holiday season, when resolutioners and regulars alike commit to new fitness goals, squeeze in crowded studios, and take advantage of no-joining fees and discounted memberships. Retailers slash prices on workout apparel, the media insist we make exercise resolutions “stick,” and Instagram basically functions as a fitness tracker.
Those experiencing and recovering from an eating disorder often have a complicated relationship with exercise. Many have used it in their illness to influence their body size, shape, and diet, while others have resisted it altogether. A component of many recovery plans is establishing a relationship with exercise rooted in health, self-care, and enjoyment.
In the midst of this January fitness craze, let’s discuss exercise and gyms in the context of eating disorder recovery. Here are some things to consider before visiting the gym this time of year:
1. Should I exercise in eating disorder recovery?
Compulsive or excessive exercise is a common behavior for people with anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, and other eating disorders. Much like an unhealthy relationship with food, an unhealthy relationship with exercise interferes with both our bodies and minds. If you are exercising despite illness or injury, feel guilty or anxious when unable to exercise, or use exercise to permit or punish eating, please schedule an eating disorder assessment. Help is available.
If you are considering exercise in eating disorder recovery, clear your plans with your treatment team first. It is often recommended to avoid exercise in early recovery as your body and mind begin to heal, but your treatment team is best equipped to individualize a plan for you. They may help you reintroduce exercise that supports your recovery, as well as modify your meal plan to fuel it.
The answer to “Should I exercise?” depends—on where you are in recovery, surely, as well as the type of exercise and the intensity and frequency with which you plan to incorporate it.
2. What movement will support my recovery?
Like each eating disorder, recovery is unique, and the “best” movement for you will be equally personal. Dietitians and therapists can make recommendations that consider your physical and mental state of health, personal preferences and abilities, and perhaps most importantly, the intent behind your exercise.
As our Director of Nutrition Sheena Washburn explains, healthy exercise—which she recommends referring to as “movement” or “activity”—is rooted not in a sense of control or obligation, but rather in restoration and flexibility. How are you describing your activity? Do you “have to” go to the gym? Is it something you “should” do because of something you ate or are planning to eat? Is it motivated by your eating disorder or your recovery?
When identifying movement beneficial to you, place greater faith in your treatment team’s recommendations than in those presented by the media or the stranger at the front of the Zumba classroom. Your team has your recovery in mind.
3. How will I handle triggers at the gym?
If you do decide to hit the gym, plan ahead for potentially triggering situations. Work with your treatment team to develop strategies for handling these and other triggers at a place so hyper-focused on bodies:
- Scales and body fat analyzers.
- Full-body mirrors.
- Tight-fitting or shape-revealing attire.
- Changing clothes in public locker rooms.
- Numbers of calories burned (or time/distance spent) on cardio machines.
- Social comparison in group classes.
- Diet culture language used by trainers and other gym-goers as “motivation.”
Consider the following suggestions:
- Stay off the scale and beyond eyeshot of anyone else on one.
- Choose a machine or mat with only an obstructed view of the mirror.
- Swap the spandex for an oversized t-shirt and mesh shorts.
- Change in a restroom stall, or at home beforehand, instead of the common locker area.
- Place a towel or magazine over any numbers on the cardio machines.
- Bring along a friend who can cut short body-shaming and intervene if your eating disorder also shows up.
Remind yourself that movement is far from one-size-fits-all, and that your goals should serve your current recovery.
If you’re concerned in the new year about your relationship with exercise or food, please take our online quiz or give us a call at 1-888-364-5977.