If you don’t like the way your body looks, you should get off your butt and change it...right?
Wrong. If a person has an eating disorder, what can look like a healthy attitude toward exercising is usually part of the problem. Because fear of weight gain is at the heart of eating disorders, people are driven to exercise in order to get rid of this fear and regulate their emotions.
In the context of eating disorders, and in an effort to control this fear, people can exercise to an unhealthy extent.
Let’s explore the difference between unhealthy and healthy types of exercise. Read through the following two lists, and then read through them again, checking all the items that apply to you.
Notice which of the two lists has more check marks.
Exercise is physically and mentally unhealthy when…
- A person is exercising specifically to decrease intense fears of “fatness”
- A person is exercising in response to feelings of guilt and disgust after eating
- A person feels as if they have to exercise or else they will immediately gain weight
- A person feels intense anxiety if they do not exercise
- A person’s overall mental health is impaired by exercise
- A person’s physical health is negatively impacted by the exercise
- A person’s physician has recommended a decrease in exercise
- A person is unwilling to accept their physical appearance
- A person is actively attempting to change their physical appearance
- It is a form of self-punishment
Exercise is physically and mentally healthy when...
- A person engages in a mild to moderate amount of exercise for fun or for health
- A person is not exercising specifically to decrease intense fears of “fatness”
- A person is not exercising in response to feelings of guilt and disgust after eating
- A person does not feel as if they have to exercise or else they will immediately gain weight
- A person does not feel intense anxiety if they do not exercise
- A person’s physician approves of the exercise
Exercise: not so healthy with an eating disorder
- A person is not attempting to actively change their physical appearance at the cost of their mental and physical health
- A person generally accepts their physical appearance
- A person’s physical health is improved by exercise
- A person’s mental health is improved by exercise
- An eating disorder is not triggered by exercise
Why exercise is tricky
Almost everyone says that exercise is healthy, so it can be confusing to suddenly learn that exercise is unhealthy for you. Until the eating disorder is under control, exercise is a tricky business.
For reasons involving your physical health, and to break the eating disorder habit of exercising in response to distress, it is important for you to disconnect from exercise during treatment. Once you are able to tolerate your fear of weight gain and feelings of guilt and disgust after eating, and to do so without engaging in eating disorder behaviors, relearning how to engage in physical activity for fun and health, without the eating disorder, will be a very important part of your recovery. But a focus on restoring your mental health will be primary until you’ve reached the stage of recovery where you can reintegrate physical activity into your routine.
Some questions to consider about exercise:
- What types of exercise are you currently engaging in?
- How often are you currently engaging in exercise?
- On a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 representing no negative emotion at all and 10 representing the highest degree of negative emotion, how much are negative emotions (such as anxiety) driving you to exercise?
- How much do you think exercise is negatively impacting your health?
- In what ways will it be or has it been hard for you to scale back on exercising? How can you overcome barriers to scaling back?
Whenever you have the urge to exercise but you resist that urge, list the date and the time as well as any other relevant details. (Example: “Thursday, 5:00 p.m., spent time with my sister instead of going to the gym”).