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How to Develop a Healthy Relationship with Exercise    

How to Develop a Healthy Relationship with Exercise

Art by Andrew Wetmore

By Lee Phillips

It’s wild to think that resting is a controversial concept. But in a culture where we have to constantly be producing to feel valuable, it makes sense. When this productivity complex collides with fat phobia, and a culture that has given 10 percent of the population eating disorders (myself included), it’s no surprise that our relationship to exercise champions no-days-off “discipline” and disregards rest. This is harmful for everyone, but for people with eating disorders it’s especially important to find ways to relate to exercise that are focused on joy and self-care rather than calorie deficits or appearance-focused goals. 

If you’re struggling to heal an unhealthy relationship with exercise, the first step is to be able to identify what exactly is going on. If you’re exercising despite illness, feeling unable to take rest days or exercising to the point of extreme exhaustion, those are signs that you need to prioritize rest. “Rest is when our body repairs tissue damage, restores depleted fuel stores, and builds muscle,” says Farah Khan, a certified nutritionist who works with people with eating disorders. When you don’t rest, it takes a toll on your body. “Compromising rest periods can increase burn out, risk of injury, and depress immune function which increases your chances of getting sick,” says Khan. 

There’s also a psychological component to watch out for. For those with eating disorders, exercise is often used as an attempt to control the body, as “punishment” for eating or to meet a physical goal that isn’t actually healthy for their bodies. Khan explains that “if the thought of missing a workout leads to feelings of intense anxiety, guilt, or worry about gaining weight, that can signal an unbalanced relationship with one's body, food and exercise.” 

During the worst of my eating disorder, it became my full-time job to ignore how my body felt, so becoming aware of these sensations again was a huge tool for me to start healing. Learning to rest when my body needed it was a huge part of that. Rest tells you that you have inherent value in who you are, now, not in the future when you accomplish something. When I was sick,  I hyper-focused on exercise as a means to “fix” something that I didn’t like about my body. If I didn’t exercise I felt like a failure. 

This narrative that I am still unlearning is a common one: You have to be rigid in your exercise or else you will hate your body. Jennifer Rollin is a clinical psychotherapist, eating disorder specialist, and founder of The Eating Disorder Center. According to Rollin, healing your relationship with exercise begins with  “noticing the thoughts and stories that you are telling yourself surrounding exercise.” If we embody the concept of rest, that we are perfect and deserving as we are, these stories can start to be challenged. 

For me, that looked like affirming an alternate story with the values of rest in mind. It’s almost like an inversion of the negative story you’ve been telling yourself. My positive story was, and still is: “I exercise when I am authentically compelled to. I do so to feel good, and sometimes feeling good means doing something else. That’s ok, too!”  Rollin calls these "healthy self coping statements” and she offers some of her own: "I deserve to eat and nourish my body, no matter how much I have exercised today" and "The amount that I exercise does not define my worth as a person." 

After noticing and challenging negative stories about exercise, we have to put our “money” where our mouth is and challenge our actions accordingly. It doesn't have to happen overnight, but Rollin suggests starting by listing the exercise rules that you feel like you must follow, such as “I always exercise for ___ amount of time,” or “I only take one rest day per week,” or “I must sweat when I exercise.” Then you can challenge these rules one step at a time. “You might start by taking one rest day a week or trying a gentle yoga class instead of running, or you might begin by shaving 10 minutes off your daily exercise routine.” 

While you do this, you might feel distressed. It’s not easy giving up a pattern that we find comfort in, no matter how unhealthy it might be. Remind yourself that it’s only temporary –you’re working on this because you want to heal, and you will! Eventually, you will break up with your old toxic relationship to exercise so that it can become what it’s meant to be: something that makes you feel good in your body! 

You are more than capable of wiping the slate clean and “re-meeting” movement in a whole new way. To prompt her clients to start imagining a new relationship with exercise, Rollin asks them, “If you could wave a magic wand and your body would not change, what type of movement would you do (if any)?”  What this helps us do is “disconnect movement from weight loss or attempts to change your body,” says Rollin.  That changes exercise from being a means to an end to instead being a present experience that’s about feeling joy. If you’re worried that without motivating goals you won’t exercise, that’s a signal to rethink the concept of exercise entirely. Movement comes in so many different forms! It could be rollerblading, hula hooping, hiking, or just dancing in your living room to your favorite song. 

Ironically, the less pressure you put on movement, the more sustainable and long-term it can be. At the end of the day, we will commit to things that bring us happiness, rather than feeling like punishment.  “A sustainable relationship to movement is one rooted in self-care, joy, and self-kindness, not rigid rules where the focus is on trying to change your body,” says Rollin. 

These days, if I don’t exercise for weeks on end, I still feel that pang of guilt. All I can do now is acknowledge it and let it go. I’m still here, I’m still healthy, I’m still ok. When I feel ready, I’ll lay my yoga mat down with no agenda. I'll sit there and just start to move without any pressure, no goal except to experience my body and how it expresses itself.  I’m only now realizing that I can only truly heal my eating disorder if I heal my relationship with exercise. Learning to incorporate the values of rest into my relationship with movement has forced me to unlearn the same belief that gave me an eating disorder in the first place: that I am not enough as I am. By prioritizing rest I more fully embody the belief that my worth is intrinsic, not based on what I’ve accomplished, or how I look.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can contact the National Eating Disorder Association Helpline (@NEDA) for support, resources, and treatment options by phone or text at (800) 931-2237.

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