It’s no secret that I’ve spent a good chunk of my life battling an eating disorder. In fact, mental health advocacy and writing have become the thing that I’m most well known for nowadays.
What many of my readers don’t know is that I used to be known as an athlete. I took regular dance lessons since I could walk and played select soccer from the time I was just seven years old through my freshman year, at which time I found a different love interest: running.
I was pretty good, too! I made a name for myself quickly in the bubbled world of Missouri cross country and track. I became the first athlete from my high school to compete at state, led my team to district and conference championships, and even hit newspaper headlines for “making history” when I won one of the biggest meets in the midwest.
Moral of the story?
I know what it’s like to love a sport, to have expectations riding on your back, and to constantly be walking the fine line between healthy exercise and obsessive exercise. I know that if that tightrope tips left, towards over-exercise and under-nutrition, you can quickly find yourself battling injury, illness, and even mental health issues. And if that tightrope tips right, towards, “I’ll start exercising tomorrow,” and “I’ll stop when it gets uncomfortable,” you might find yourself in the breeding grounds for poor physical health and low mental stamina.
It’s a tricky place to be in, for sure. It can become overwhelming, scary, and obsessive in the blink of an eye, and sometimes, that fear can lead us to avoid exercise entirely.
But fear not!
Here are my top seven (true and tested!) tips for finding a balance with exercise that will work for your mind, body, and spirit… without letting those workouts become a boring chore or a binding chain.
- Check your flexibility.
Despite what social media and those ominous Nike graphic tees might tell you, rigidity is more harmful than helpful in your workout routine.
When I was deep in my eating disorder, I couldn’t go a day without missing a run, a lift, or an ab session. The very thought of veering off my training program gave me MEGA anxiety. This led to deeper issues pretty quickly, as I began to feel that I could only eat or enjoy certain food groups if I had worked out that day. Expending energy had become the only way to justify ingesting energy. Missing a workout meant missing a meal, at the least.
I also feared that skipping even one minute of exercise would hinder my performance ability. For example, if my coaches sent us on a ten minute cooldown run, and we arrived back to the track at nine minutes and forty seconds, I would continue running in circles to make up the last twenty seconds… and though I’m ashamed to admit it, I would encourage my teammates to do the same. It even got to the point where I would miss out on hours of family vacations to work out.
You should never, ever, EVER sacrifice a fun life event in order to burn more calories.
Dedication to a routine is not always a bad thing, and it can definitely yield positive results. Yet the reality that so many people are uninformed of is that missing a few workouts here and there will not affect your progress in the slightest. In fact, some of the best athletes in the world have the highest volume of rest days in order to let their bodies and muscles heal.
Before you start any workout, I suggest asking yourself, “How would I feel if I had to miss this?” Would you panic? Feel inadequate? Feel the need to “make it up” the next day (forget this one, anyway… overdoing it one day to validate missing another is actually harmful to your muscles and bones and puts unnecessary stress on your body that won’t help you in the long run)? If you answer “yes” to any of those questions, you can conclude that you aren’t in a good headspace with exercise. I would recommend challenging that compulsivity by shortening your workout, or even skipping it entirely. The only way to challenge a negative mindset is by doing the thing that it hates the most, and the only way to break an obsession is by giving it up.
The same goes for food. Feel like you can’t veer from greens for a cookie, or like you can only have that piece of cake tonight if you burn it off in the gym afterwards? Skip the validations and the food fears and live a little!
Being inflexible is by far the biggest sign of a developing obsession, purge disorder, or eating disorder, and will put you directly on the next flight to a damaged immune system, frequent breaks and sprains, and a constant feeling of missing out on life beyond the treadmill.
- Listen to your body.
Does that ankle sprain hurt, even just a little? Take the day off and ice it! Fighting off the tailend of a nasty cold and still being plagued by a barky cough? Skip leg day and make it throat day with a nice cup of tea! Taking care of your body and listening to the signals it sends you is the best way to sustain an all around healthy body and to ensure better, more thorough training down the line. Training when you’re sick or injured can do more harm than good, and lead to prolonged time on the bench in the future if you aren’t careful.
For those of us in recovery from eating disorders, sometimes this step could even entail stopping short when you feel like you’re pushing your body too hard. If that treadmill pace you used to demolish before you left for treatment is too hard to maintain now, don’t be afraid to call it quits before you hit that last mile marker if your body is screaming at you. Always work at your own pace, and don’t compare your current capability to your former capability, or to that of anyone around you. Sometimes you have to “give up” in order to fight back against the compulsive or obsessive exercise urges that so many of us face when battling an eating disorder. It proves to our minds that we Can, In Fact, Survive Without This.
Remember to meet yourself where you are TODAY. If that means barely jogging home, lifting easy when you killed it yesterday, or even staying in bed for some much needed recuperation, do it. Do it, do it, do it.
But if you find yourself doing this rather frequently, ask yourself if it’s a mental or physical block that’s keeping you from completing or starting your workout. If you feel like you physically can’t do it or like you’re in a negative, obsessive headspace, stay home. But if you feel like it’s just a general lack of motivation, get out that door and prove to yourself that you CAN, warrior!
- Leave the numbers at the door.
I know, I know, the Garmin Forerunner 15 is a marvelous invention. Seeing your pace, your time, your distance traveled, and even your heart rate can be such an exciting feeling for runners and makes us feel so in control! It can be extremely satisfying to watch that pace go down as the miles go up and to see quantitative reminders of your improvement.
For some of us, that satisfaction can be almost too good. We end up beating ourselves up over the smallest things, like a ten second increase in pace or splits that aren’t quite negative. We obsess over the calories we’ve burned or the amount of miles we’ll get to add to our log, and the watch that was such a blessing has become a curse in the blink of an eye.
Notice that this is you?
Take that watch out of the game, sis. Leave it at home sometimes, and just go run the pace that feels right.
If you tend to use cardio machines, like treadmills, instead of running on the roads, I recommend using a post-it note to cover the calories burned and RPM. This way, you can be more mindful of how the exercise is making your body feel in the moment and be better able to meet your needs now, rather than constantly trying to live up to what you “used to” or “should” be able to do.
Of course, numbers can be super helpful for some, especially those in season for athletics or training for a big race or competition, so talk to your coach about your options. But make sure to check yourself if you realize that watch is starting to own you… don’t forget that YOU own IT!
- Lighten the mood.
Part of the reason why I had so much fun with cross country my freshman year was that I was running practically every mile with someone by my side. I made some of my best friends on long runs, and our laughs and conversations were absolutely priceless.
As I got faster and started to win more races, the stakes got higher and the pressure got to me. I left my teammates behind and stepped up to run alone. I became miserable, spending ten mile runs alone in my head. But I felt it was what I had to do to “get fast” and make everyone proud.
It’s crucial to remember that there are reasons why we exercise and play sports other than to get fit or to perform. There are social aspects. There are mental aspects. There are enjoyment aspects. Don’t let yourself get so caught up in “hardcore” training that you put on your blinders and focus only on the physical.
Sign up for a fun hot yoga or spinning class! Find a gym buddy, and get lunch together afterwards! Join a running group and take your mileage to new trails or to the beach! Put in your headphones once in a while and jam out to what makes you feel good!
This should be fun.
So ask yourself: is it?
- Eat intuitively.
Stop counting macros or forcing yourself to eat wheaties before a meet, just because you read that your favorite runner happens to do that. We’re all different. We all have different energy needs. And the really cool part about our bodies is that they’ll tell us what we need. If you have a craving for sugar, don’t ignore it; your body probably needs sugar. And if you have a craving for fat, don’t ignore it; your body probably needs fat. Even these food groups which we’ve deemed “bad” in the fitness world are required to replenish lost energy stores (carbs), rebuild muscle tissue (protein), and absorb nutrients (fat). You rationally can’t, and shouldn’t, go on a “no carb” or “low fat” diet. Don’t go on any diet. Just eat a variety of foods and eat what your body is really, truly asking you for. Food is fuel!
For my friends in eating disorder recovery who may not have hunger cues, make sure that you’re still fueling yourself by eating a snack before your workout (usually something easy to digest) and something afterwards (high in carbs and protein) to make sure that you’re all amped up and ready to go!
- Keep a fitness diary.
After each workout, write down what you did, how it felt, one thing you’re proud of, and one thing you feel that you can improve upon. This forces you to reflect upon your workout and stare your habits straight in the eyes. Maybe you start to realize that you’re giving up at a certain point every week when you know you have more in the tank, or you’re pushing yourself to the point of exhaustion each day and getting no real enjoyment from your workouts. By physically putting this on paper, or even in a note in your phone, you can begin to see patterns where your exercise balance has been offset. This will also help you to reach for your goals while simultaneously being mindful of the way it feels on the road to meet them. Plus, it’s fun to look back and see how far you’ve come!
If you’ve dealt with exercise addiction or an eating disorder, you can share this journal with your therapist and/or dietician in order to adjust your meal plan and address any negative thoughts that arise during exercise! It’s a great way to channel emotions into one place for later evaluation.
- Thank your body, constantly.
I started doing this when I came back to running after taking my final season of high school off to go to anorexia treatment. I found myself so frustrated when I was starting out again. This new body felt too large, slow, and sluggish. I wasn’t hitting the times that I once was, and my motivation was so low that I struggled to run even two miles where I could once run twelve. I was fed up with myself, disappointed with my abilities, embarrassed of how much fitness I’d lost. I began to fall into a massive pit of self hatred.
And then I began to think bigger picture.
Why, ultimately, do we exercise? For our health. Getting your blood pumping, your adrenaline flowing, and your muscles moving is such a vital treat to your body that it will treat you back with lasting health in the years to come. Even on my slowest, lowest, worst days, I was still in motion, My body was still reaping benefits.
I began to thank it for what it could do, instead of reprimanding it for what it could not.
Thank you, quads, for powering me through that last mile!
Thank you, heart, for delivering all of this delicious oxygen to my cells!
Thank you, ankles, for supporting us so well!
Thank you, biceps, for showing up for me today!
You almost have to build community within your own body. Become best friends with each individual part, and make it known that you appreciate it.
This way, exercise can become a celebration of an ability rather than a criticism of “athleticism”.
I hope that you can implement these tools into your workout routine and use them as a strong foundation upon which to build a strong and healthy life!