Many of us who have struggled with eating disorders lost our privilege to exercise at one point or another. For me, it was dance. When I was at my lowest weight, I was medically forbidden to dance for a few months until I was healthier. This crushed me. Dance was everything to me. But even when dance was slowly allowed back into my life, I didn’t know how to exercise in a healthy way. For me, it was all about the calories burned and the way my body looked. In fact, exercise stayed that way for me for many years– it’s only a very recent thing for me that exercise is something I do because I actually like it, and because my body needs it in a healthy way.
It all started with running, actually. I developed anxiety a while back and running was a safe way for me to get rid of my anxiety. It cleared my head, I felt like I was in control, and it boosted my self esteem as I built up endurance and could run faster and farther. The biggest thing running gave me was a release for my panic attacks and flashbacks. I’ll explain…
When I run, it mimics a panic attack in a safe way. My heart rate increases dramatically if I’m running hard enough, and my breathing becomes shallow. This is how my anxiety manifests itself when I have panic attacks, but when I run, it doesn’t feel scary because I am in control. I can stop running and therefore stop my shallow breathing and rapid heart rate as well at any time. If I’m really anxious, I can run faster until I can’t run anymore, and I am left with a feeling of peace and completion (I just make sure I eat a good snack or shake right after). I feel free when I run.
Like I said, I didn’t always feel this way. Even just a month ago, I was exercising for the wrong reasons. I wanted a Victoria’s Secret body before spending my upcoming summer at the beach, and this led to a lapse (not a full relapse, but I struggled a little). I had to take a step back and remind myself what recovery means to me, and I realized then that I had to take a break from exercise again until I could do it in a healthy way. Now, I’m at that sweet spot. It has been welcomed back into my life again and I am going to make sure I don’t slip back into old thinking.
For me, recovery from anorexia and anxiety includes healthy exercise. It is essential for me to get better. As long as you are honest with yourself and putting your recovery first, exercise (if appropriate) can be a major new coping skill. Keep fighting!