That is the question… Should you exercise in recovery? The short answer is no.
For those recovering from disordered relationships to their bodies and food, exercise is a bad idea. Exercise burns calories and the goal of eating disorder recovery is weight restoration, so doing any exercise to slow or impede this process goes directly against any recovery efforts. Another goal of recovery is to regain or discover a healthier mentality about your body and food. Trying to burn calories in this process can keep you stuck in a mindset that isn’t beneficial. It is true that there is more to exercising than just burning calories such as becoming stronger with weight training or more centered with yoga, however those benefits will still be there and can be reaped AFTER recovery has been achieved and maintained.
In my recovery, I went through a few phases of “quasi-recovery” before I fully committed to a robust recovery plan which you can read about in this post. In my “quasi-recovery” state I continued to exercise. I was exercising less than when I was sick but the mentality behind my exercise was still dangerous. I was still counting calories and aiming for a deficit. I was still trying to stall the weight gain. I was using exercise as a crutch to keep me from truly letting my body heal and find its set point. When I finally made the very difficult and complicated decision to truly recover and eat without any restrictions I made the equally difficult decision to stop exercising completely as well.
At first it was challenging, I found myself doing pushups and squats absentmindedly in my bedroom to compensate for the guilt I felt not working out. Eventually I stopped even that and truly let my body rest for the first time in a long time. As the weight came back on and my body changed, my mindset began to change too. I slowly but surely learned that exercise was just a way I was punishing my body for what I ate. I learned to love myself and enjoy all of the things that recovery brought back into my life. I needed that time of complete rest to truly understand how exercise was not good for my recovery.
It wasn’t until I was fully weight restored to my set point and mentally recovered for an entire year that I began to wonder about exercising again. This time however, I noticed a very important difference in my mindset. I didn’t want to punish myself, burn off all of my fat, or create any kind of deficit. I wanted to move my body with love and celebrate what it could do. I began doing yoga again. I have been doing yoga for a few months now and not once have I felt “too fat” or “not good enough.” Not once has weight loss been my ultimate goal. I can feel myself getting stronger and more flexible and I look at myself in the mirror as a powerful warrior who has won the battle.
However, despite all of my progress I can never forget that I have a history with eating disorders. As great and body positive and happy as the workouts make me now, I know that there is always a chance the anorexic voice can creep back in. If I ever feel like I need to shed the weight, if I ever force myself to a class I really don’t want to do just out of guilt, and if I ever start to abuse exercise again I know I need to completely stop.
Exercise can be wonderful if done safely and as a celebration of movement and strength, but for those attempting to recover from an eating disorder none of those benefits are pertinent. The key to recovery is to eat without restriction, stop all exercise, and learn to be okay with yourself without making any changes to who you naturally are.