The Truth About Exercising in Recovery

Is exercise really always healthy?

Zeynep Demirelli

11/10/20210 min read

I am no longer seeing my therapist.

In May, we agreed that we achieved all the goals we had set at the beginning of the treatment. Thus, I no longer consider myself at the beginning of my eating disorder recovery journey but more somewhere towards the very end. I think I am doing quite well with my body image and eating habits. I no longer stare at myself in the mirror searching for flaws, I don’t weigh myself obsessively every morning nor do I religiously calculate the calories of the meals I am eating. I sometimes engage in emotional eating or overeat to the point I am stuffed but I would say I do that as frequently as a normal healthy person would.

I am currently living an active lifestyle, I bike and walk everywhere but I do not go to the gym. At the beginning of my recovery journey, I decided to quit exercising because I saw that each workout I did was sabotaging the progress I was making in therapy. I did not get on a treadmill nor lift a single weight in the last two years. When I felt comfortable enough, I tried to incorporate some home workouts here and there but I honestly hate doing circuit or strength training. On the other side, running makes me feel euphoric and energetic. To add, I hate feeling out of breath when I am going up just two floors; but the weather isn’t always the best for a run. Thus, I was never able to properly re-introduce working out to my life. I had given up.

After a quite busy and stressful year, during which we sat every day in front of the screen for more than 8 hours, this Wednesday my boyfriend and I decided to join a gym that is close to our new place.

With this decision, I was determined to not complicate my workouts, I decided that I could run some days and the others I could try lifting weights with my boyfriend. In order to do that I asked him to plan and lead all the sessions. If I was not the one planning, I would not be worrying about anything.

After not working out for that long, you are for sure ready. You have recovered so you can easily workout without it getting messy.
Oh boy, I was wrong.

Wednesday morning we got up at 7 a.m. and put on our workout clothes. We walked to the gym enthusiastically and got on the treadmill to warm up. The treadmill had two different options to choose from: I could start walking straight away or I could enter my weight and height so that it could calculate the calories I burned accurately.

Hesitating just for a millisecond, I pressed on just ‘‘Start’’ and continued chatting with my boyfriend. Five minutes into our warm-up, I realized that I was checking the time, distance and calories, with the corner of my eye.

It is just an automatic response, a leftover habit from a long time ago. Nothing to worry about.

I suggested getting off and start stretching, which felt amazing all over. We then spent a lot of time trying to figure out the correct way to do the exercises. Because of Corona, we were allowed to stay in the gym only for an hour. Plus we were new members, so we had to walk around for a while to explore the different machines the gym offered. Without even realizing it, an hour passed. We walked back home with a bit of muscle pain and a smile on our faces. We booked our next workout for Friday.

Friday came. We woke up very early to avoid being late and to manage our time better at the gym. After a short walk on the treadmill, we did some stretching. We then went in front of the weights which stood against the mirror. As in the cliché imagery of a gym, some guys were doing bench presses watching themselves from the mirror. A girl was doing leg lifts with 100% concentration while listening to music with her big headphones. I will ashamedly admit that I unintentionally compared my body to hers and all the joy and excitement I had about working out went straight out of the window. The disordered thoughts I fought so hard to get rid of, toxic fitness quotes on Instagram, the ‘‘5 different workout plans that will shed fat quickly’’ articles, all came back rushing. Suddenly it was about who was looking better, fitter, who was further into her fitness ‘‘journey’’ instead of ‘‘Oh I’m just here because I want to feel good about myself’’.

No need for competition. You are there for yourself, do not fall back into this trap.

My boyfriend showed me how to do the exercise correctly. After watching him closely (!), I got the appropriate dumbbells for myself and intuitively turned towards the mirror to check if I was doing the exercise the correct way.

After the second repetition, I started having some flashbacks which took me way back in time. It was as if I was that girl again, who was obsessed with the way she looked and how many calories she burned. It was not me but that version of myself who was looking right back at me in the mirror. As if these last two years did not happen and I did not come such a long way.

Anxious thoughts came rushing: ‘‘You are not wearing your Fitbit, this workout does not count in your daily steps’’, ‘‘You are wasting your time because you are not counting how many calories you are burning’’ and many others. Before long, my inner voice just began harassing me: ‘‘See how you look when you don’t exercise for two years, well done!’’

I tried shaking it off. But I just could not stop staring at the mirror. There was no turning back now. I was just scanning my body, mercilessly assessing and criticizing the way my arms, legs, and stomach looked. It was as if someone broke the spell I was under and I could finally see my body for what it was. And it did not look as good as I thought it looked. My legs had gotten huge. I was way thicker than before. I had gained a lot of weight. I just knew it! I could see it with my own eyes! How could my eyes lie to me?

You are triggered. Your body dysmorphia is acting up. You see yourself differently because you are working out. Remember that. Please, please, please.

Body dysmorphia is a really interesting phenomenon, you can see two absolutelydifferent people in the mirror within a minute. Managing body dysmorphia is not the same as managing unwanted thoughts. It is very hard to challenge something that you can see with your eyes. After all, it is sensory information, how can it be wrong?

Thankfully the dumbbells I was trying to lift were too heavy for me so we had to go to another spot, away from the mirror. I wanted to leave right after that move, so we did.

Walking home, I kept thinking about what I ‘‘should’’ eat for breakfast. I was craving a nice ham and cheese croissant but I just could not, otherwise, I would have wasted my workout. The moment we entered the house, I told my boyfriend what was going on. And I realized how continuing might push me right back into a dark and disordered mindset. I was scared but I felt annoyed with myself that I still could not exercise after two years. As he knew I enjoyed running a lot, he suggested that I’d only run and that I’d give up on lifting weights. But I just felt bad and lazy about giving up because;

one - the fitness industry and the diet culture told me it is bad to be a ‘‘cardio bunny’’,

two - everyone knows weight lifting, in general, is ‘‘healthy’’.

Is it though?

Now looking back and thinking clearly, I know that I was wrong.

Exercising may be healthy (in general) but not in all cases. Not for people with a history of disordered exercising, who are recovering from an eating disorder.

If you are at the beginning of your recovery journey or maybe at a similar point as me and you are struggling to incorporate exercising back into your life, my best advice for you would be to stop pushing yourself to do something you do not enjoy. If you find yourself feeling worse and trying to fight all the disordered thoughts you tried so hard to get rid of, DO NOT EXERCISE! Maybe, your body is trying to tell you something: maybe it is finally time, to let go of all the rigid beliefs about exercising and tune into what feels good for you and your body.