Is Hitting The Gym Safe While You’re Recovering From An Eating Disorder?
There are many ways to recover from an eating disorder. The safest and most effective way is through professional rehabilitation, where both the physical and mental symptoms of eating disorders can be directly addressed and treated. But, some never seek treatment and find their own path to recovery.
The problem is that some people turn to other unhealthy means to “manage” body image issues, dysmorphia, and other mental health issues.
This is why the recent wave of stories I have seen from people proclaiming they have recovered from an eating disorder by hitting the gym give me pause.
You might be thinking “but exercise is healthy!” In most cases this is true. It is important to maintain physical activity to maintain a healthy body and mind. However, the relationship between exercise and people who have lived with an eating disorder is much more complicated.
First and foremost, compulsive exercise is considered a symptom of eating disorders. Some individuals with eating disorders use exercise as a way to distract from their rapidly dropping weight, while others feel the need to compulsively exercise in their attempt to reach a “desired” body size.
Once a person has decided to seek recovery through professional means or own their own, the risks of exercise addiction or compulsive exercise don’t go away.
“Eating disorders are sneaky” Ilene Fishman, LCSW, tells Shape. “They hide out. You might be saying, ‘I just want to get fit!’ but really, you have this hidden compensatory relationship with exercise—working out gives you permission to eat a certain way.”
Indeed, many people recovering from eating disorders turn to exercise as a means of controlling both their body and their eating habits. They use it to continue their pursuit for a specific type of body, and (even more worryingly) use it to allow themselves to eat.
As the eating disorder survivor who documented their recovery on the blog BeautyBeyondBones admits, “exercise addiction was something that I definitely struggled with through much of my recovery. […] It was a way that made me feel as though I ‘deserved’ to eat. That I ‘earned’ the right to consume calories.”
In a twist of fate, her negative relationship with exercise was eventually broken by a medical issue likely related to her own eating disorder. For others, the compulsion to exercise can continue to feed into negative body image issues leading to unhealthy behaviors and potentially eating disorder relapse.
This isn’t to say that exercising after an eating disorder is inherently negative. However, it is important to be mindful of the risk that comes with exercise and watch for warning signs such as feeling heightened anxiety or stress if you miss a workout.
“It’s absolutely possible to exercise if you’ve had an eating disorder in the past,” Fishman explains. “The key is to truly know yourself and understand where the eating disorder might still be hiding out and motivating the desire to exercise.”