A huge part in my recovery from my eating disorder lies in shaping a happy relationship to exercise. One that is healthy, fun, and enjoyable, and that lacks the intent to lose weight, force my body into a specific shape, or punish myself for eating.
For years, my life has revolved around exercising and going to the gym. It has been my number one priority, and what I’ve planned my days around. I’ve been crippled under the conviction that I have to work out in order to eat. That I have to exercise to suppress what inevitably would result in tremendous weight gain should I ever stop moving.
I was able to sustain this lifestyle to a manageable – albeit exhausting – degree while I was at University. I was efficient and ambitious, always getting straight to work on school assignments and exams, finishing tasks days or weeks in advance. This allowed me to, for the most part, customise my schedule. It was easy for me to fit in daily visits to the gym, long power walks, and runs. I often did several forms of exercise in one day, and complete rest days were an extreme rarity.
Once I graduated from University and started working a 9-to-5 office job, I found myself stressed and panicked trying to fit my workouts in. I got up before 5am most mornings and went straight to the gym. When I got home from work in the evening I would go out for a long power walk, and on the weekends I’d try to fit in as much exercise as possible to make up for lost sweat sessions during the week.
I was stressed, sleep deprived, and an emotional wreck, but quitting wasn’t an option, because quitting would mean I’d swing right to the opposite end of the spectrum. I’d become a lazy couch potato and likely gain so much weight I’d have to be fork-lifted out of my apartment.
Yet, no matter how many hours I spent in the gym, my body wasn’t taking on the shape I wanted it to and I was frustrated, angry, and upset that I was trying so hard, and failing. My busy schedule was hindering me in my pursuit to keep a low weight. In my mind, this confirmed my worst fears that because I wasn’t exercising enough, I was gaining weight. Objectively, the weight gain was more likely due to the complete and utter stress and sleep deprivation my mind and body was suffering.
In addition to this, my paralysing fear of taking a break from the gym has resided in the belief that if I stop, I’ll never start again. Time and time again, I’ve concluded that it is safer to stay in my forceful routine than lead the risk of a life chained to the sofa shovelling down a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.
And yet, I’ve known all along that a huge part in my recovery from my eating disorder lies in forming a new relationship to exercise. Which is how I finally, after months of deliberation, took three weeks off from the gym. Three weeks may not seem like a lot, but to me, it’s the longest break I have taken from exercising in about 6 years. It was far from easy, and I can’t say I enjoyed those three weeks “off”. I felt guilty every single day and no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t shake the constant nagging thought of that I have to go to the gym. I felt like I was gaining weight and like my muscles were dissolving under the lack of conditioning. I battled anxiety and fear of that I had ruined the routine I had, and now that I had broken it, I would never find the motivation or courage to ever set foot in the gym again.
When I finally did go back to the gym, I made sure to tell myself I was just going to feel it out. No pressure on that the workout needed to be a specific quality, length, set number of exercises, or weights. Since then, I’ve gone to the gym about every other day, each time working on putting my mind in the right place – no pressure.
So did my three weeks of rest result in tremendous weight gain and a life sentenced to laziness? No. Although I felt like it did, in reality not much changed other than that my body got some much needed rest. That, and that my first couple of workouts after my time away from the gym resulted in a muscle soreness I’ve not felt in years.
I still have a lot to work on before I can say I have a healthy relationship to exercise. Despite this three week practice, I still got upset this week when I had two days of rest in a row. I have to keep reminding myself that the goal with working out now cannot be to lose weight, and that I’m not doing it with the purpose of forcing my body into being a certain shape.
As with everything else, all I can do is keep experimenting, curiously exploring methods I’ve not tried before, and feel what works for me, my body, and my mind.