Exercise for the Right Reasons

By January 7, 2013

I am recovering from anorexia and am having the hardest time giving up the “exercise to burn calories and lose weight” mentality. Do you have practical strategies or suggestions for “finding balance” with exercise in particular? Will I ever see a day when I exercise for the “right” reasons? What helps people who are dependent on exercise to “recover” to a normal amount of exercise? Thanks so much! S. G.

Dear S.G.,

What a great question and one with which many in recovery from an eating disorder wrestle. First, a resounding “YES” to will you ever see the day that you can exercise for the “right” reasons. This is entirely possible; it requires changing how you view exercise much like you changed your thinking about food and eating.

Perhaps a good place to start is even challenging the term “exercise.” Think more in terms of “moving your body” or “daily activity” instead of all the possible negative connotations with the term exercise. A wonderful resource is a workbook called, Moving Away From Diets. This book uses the term “joyful movement.” The authors suggest many other motivations for movement (other than burning calories for weight loss) such as: improved energy and mental alertness, self-fulfillment, feeling more alive, improved mood, pleasure, fun, to play, decreased tension, improved sleep quality and/or connection with people, just to name a few. Staying active is, of course, a natural part of lifelong healthy living. The process of change begins with starting to rethink how you define exercise as well as determining what is pleasurable and what activities you truly enjoy.

Another helpful idea is to take a break for a period of time from your current pattern of exercise, if your sole purpose is burning calories for weight loss. Interrupt the cycle, then start again with fewer days per week (2-3 days/week instead of every day), and then build up to 4-5 days per week once you have experimented with pleasurable activities done in a reasonable time frame (30-60 minutes). Take days off and be mindful of activities of daily living that regularly keep your body active (grocery shopping, house cleaning, playing with kids, walking the dog, gardening, etc.) and honor that. Find an accountability partner who has a healthy attitude toward fitness; do activities together and/or check in periodically with this person so that you don’t feel alone or resort back to isolation in exercise.

Finally, give yourself permission to enjoy the feel of moving for pleasure instead of punishment to burn calories. With that mindset, the balance comes in devoting some time and attention to activity for fitness, but not so much that you miss out on relationships and events in life that are truly meaningful. Kudos for seeking balance in this very important part of your recovery…keep learning and growing, you can do this!

Juliet N. Zuercher, RD