The Exercise Paradox

“Exercise is, undoubtedly, crucial for human health. However, for lots of recovering edfolks, it is a huge trigger for relapse.”

Cover photo by The Run Formula (Link Here)

This morning I woke up around 7:45, rolled my purple yoga mat out on the bedroom floor, and proceeded to execute a series of arm and abs exercises, following an app. From a looking-in perspective, the narrative is pretty simple: an early riser exercises, and is therefore healthy. The story, for me and a lot of other folks, is a lot more complicated.

With every pushup and dumbbell lift I completed, there was (and always is) a mantra running in my head. Burn calories. Get skinny. Burn calories. Get fit.

It’s like a devil on my left shoulder murmuring into my ear throughout the entire exercise, making me feel panicky and move frantically. Get skinny.

On my right shoulder, though, there’s always the “recovery” voice, or the angel. It encourages me to exercise for fun, for the health of my body and mind. Don’t count calories burned. Don’t fixate on the size of your stomach during crunches. So, even 15 minutes of simple exercises in my room becomes more or less a battleground between the disordered mind and the recovering mind.

Pretty much everyone can agree that exercise is good for you. The problem is, for edfolks seeking recovery such as myself, exercise often means so much more than health. Sure, lots of folks view exercise as a vehicle for weight loss. But for a recoverer, that viewpoint can so easily morph into (or back into) compulsive exercising and weight loss. It’s a dangerous slide, but one that cannot be avoided lifelong.

Whenever I see my doctor, she asks me how I get my exercise. She inevitably encourages me to exercise more. It’s common sense and a common recommendation, but it triggers an alarm in my head. When I’m exercising—whether on a yoga mat or walking around my neighborhood—there’s a constant, lingering compulsion to overexercise. I’m constantly tempted to begin walking 10 miles a day, as I once did, or to spend hours at the gym again, burning calories until I can barely move. It takes all the tools I’ve learned through the recovery process to prevent this sort of relapse. It’s exhausting.

And so this is the exercise paradox in recovery. Exercise is, undoubtedly, crucial for human health. However, for lots of recovering edfolks, it is a huge trigger for relapse. I can’t recount the number of times I’ve gone for a mile run only to feel the overwhelming desire to skip the next meal or run another 5 miles beyond what I can do. At times, I’ve caved in to this desire.

Exercise and recovery have, for me, often been at odds. I must always strike a balance between exercising enough and not giving in to the demands of the compulsive-exercise edbrain (eating disordered brain).

I know that there’s hope, because I’ve heard and read of plenty of ed recoverers who insist that they exercise out of pure enjoyment, no longer feeling obsessed with calorie burning and feeling in control of their chosen activity. There’s hope, but I’m still trying to get there. For now, I’ll keep moving slowly.


Photo credit: Breaking Muscle (View here.)


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