Anxious – Returning to Athletics After Years of Anorexia

By December 18, 2012

I am finding it difficult to come to grips with my eating disorder. I am returning to athletics after years of turmoil, but find it hard to be at ease with the quantity of food I have to eat. I could probably be eating four times the amount of that a normal person would eat. I am terrified that I will lose control and that I will run into problems down the line with obesity, etc. I can cope with my body when it is a certain weight on the scales, but when it increases by a small amount I get so upset and can’t cope. Sometimes at night, I am weighing myself three or four times. People tell me to throw out the scales, but I cannot trust them to tell me if I am putting on weight. I can trust the scale, which never lies. Change is difficult for someone with an eating disorder. It took me so long to increase my food intake to what I am eating now and I know if I cut back it would be a nightmare to have to increase again. I can’t handle all that change. I can’t cope with putting on weight. I feel my stomach, face, etc., getting bigger and it upsets me so much. I know you probably will tell me to give up running, but it is something I love dearly and I don’t want the anorexia take that away from me too. I feel powerless in controlling my weight. I can’t do it. – A.S.

Dear A.S.,

You may be surprised to hear that you don’t necessarily have to give up running. Since over exercise can be so common in an eating disorder, many athletes struggle with the question of when or if to return to sport. This is a great question with a complicated answer. There are many factors to consider.

First, and most importantly, does the sport motivate you toward health, taking care of your body and freedom in recovery? Or does the sport worsen the eating disorder thoughts/feelings and make it more difficult to be healthy? Other questions to ask yourself: Am I medically safe to return to this sport? Have I incurred injury as a result of the sport, yet continue to exercise? Does the sport prevent me from making other healthy choices in relationships, my daily schedule, and/or social engagements?

Many times, a team sport can motivate one toward health because it feels good to be a part of a team, the camaraderie and accountability with others. Conversely, solo sports such as running tend to make it a little harder to be healthy because the sport is usually done alone for long periods of time. As you mention, due to the energy output, being healthy requires taking in a lot of nutrition. This may require that you eat more food than is comfortable for you. Using running to control weight, in my opinion, would not be a reason to return to this sport. Look for activities that allow you to move your body, feel strong, release stress, enjoy the company of others, learn a new game, etc. or whatever appeals to you. Try exercise for the sheer pleasure of movement, as opposed to controlling body weight.

True freedom comes when the scale is not controlling you; rather, you are in control and free to make good choices in eating and moving your body for health. A solid treatment team, including a physician, therapist and dietitian can talk through these questions with you to help with your decision. Talk to these professionals about the reality of how much food is required, the likelihood of weight gain, options for exercise and using coping skills to handle irrational fears. There is hope and you can do this; keep seeking the truth.

Juliet N. Zuercher, RD