In 2019 I started going to the gym for the first time in my life.
Until then, I’d been strictly Not A Gym Person. I would be bad at everything – sweaty, red-faced – and everyone would look at me and think about how awful I was. But I found I actually enjoyed exercising.
Over the next few months, I reveled in personal bests, sticking to a regular workout plan until I was going to the gym 6-7 days a week. Slowly, old habits started to creep back: I could only eat certain foods if I worked out extra; or I would skip meals on days when I couldn’t make it to the gym; or I would obsess over how I looked in one video of me deadlifting; or I would decide my arms weren’t the right shape; or none of it mattered because I was getting fat anyway (hint: I wasn’t).
In 2020, like all of us, I was unable to go to the gym anymore. I spent most of my time horizontal, living vicariously through Animal Crossing. This continued for 6 months before I started working again. Now that I was no longer actively wallowing in despair (most of the time, anyway), I decided I needed to start eating well and exercising within reason. I walked to and from work daily and went to the gym a couple times a week. This time, my brain decided to fixate on what I was eating, and those same controlling habits crept back in. I would record everything I ate, obsessing over calories and protein and fat and adding and adding and adding, reducing food intake to numbers. The calorie limit I allowed myself became more and more restrictive until, luckily, I was able to realise what was happening.
Nowadays, I try very hard to find balance and above all to be kind to myself: I remind myself daily that I do not need to punish myself for not going to the gym, or for having a meal with friends. It can be exhausting to have a mental battle over seemingly the smallest thing, but I am trying to listen to how I feel and how my body feels, rather than fixating on measures and finding reasons to feel shame.
So, can a person in eating disorder recovery participate in exercise and focus on eating a healthy diet? Well, sure. But is it a whole lot harder when you have to constantly combat your own brain and make a conscious effort to avoid relapse? Yeah, absolutely.
My journey is not the same as everyone’s, but the way you think about things like exercise and nutrition when you have or have had an eating disorder can be fundamentally different from how one might “normally” perceive these activities. This month at Safe In Our World we are highlighting exercise, nutrition, and sleep. But be mindful that these things do not look the same for everyone: when, where, and how someone exercises will vary, and the way they maintain a healthy diet will differ, too.
Here are some resources that might help:
National Alliance for Eating Disorders: Exercise During Recovery
BEAT Eating Disorders
Words by Sky Tunley-Stainton