Over the years, my relationship with exercise has undergone constant transformation.
In a nutshell, I have always loved to move, but not in the form of “traditional” sports like soccer or basketball. I liked the sports that were more expressive, graceful, and technical, like gymnastics, ice skating, and dance. I wanted to do a sport and succeed, but not if I couldn’t enjoy and have fun with it.
When I first started dancing at eight years old after quitting competitive gymnastics, I was immediately hooked. The best way I can describe how dance makes me feel is blissful. When I dance, I feel like I’m floating in a bubble of happiness. It challenged me in the ways I wanted and made me feel the way I always longed for. My teacher pulled my mom aside at the end of my first dance camp and told her I had “magic feet” and needed to enroll in fall classes. And the rest is history.
But not really. I auditioned for the competitive dance company a year later and was accepted. I met so many people that are still my best friends and my love of dance continued to grow. However, my competitive nature was also fueled. During my second year in the dance company, I was diagnosed with anorexia and sent to my first treatment center.
For a long time, my parents thought dance was the “cause” of my eating disorder. In reality, there is no one cause of an eating disorder. It is a combination of factors that create a perfect storm. I do, however, think ballet played a part in the increasing severity of my body dysmorphia. It’s hard to not get hyper-focused on your appearance when a sport requires you to stare at yourself in the mirror for several hours.
During the 9 long months in treatment, I wasn’t allowed to exercise. For about 5 of those months, I was on “no body movement” restriction, meaning I was not even allowed to stand if not necessary. Exercise became something that seemed forbidden which gave it a sort of allure. When I first was diagnosed, I never abused exercise. I didn’t even know compulsive exercise was a thing. After being in treatment, not being allowed to move, and hear other girls talk about how much they wanted to exercise, I began to see the (very disordered and unhealthy) appeal.
When I was released from my first treatment center, I started at a new dance studio for a fresh start. About a month later, I was deep into my first relapse and quit dance because it caused me so much anxiety. My treatment team was putting more restrictions on me as my weight continued to drop, including not allowing me to exercise at all. This was the beginning of my journey with compulsive exercise. I would go into my room and lock the door and exercise for hours at night, then wake up at 5 am to exercise for another 2 hours before having to get ready for school.
I was absolutely miserable. My parents and doctors grew increasingly concerned about me as I fell fast and hard back into my eating disorder. Suddenly, I was back in the hospital, then back in treatment, and not allowed to move again.
This time around, I went to a different inpatient center. They took a more extreme approach, such as not letting us stand when not necessary, even when weight restored, medically stable, or in the partial hospitalization program. We weren’t even allowed to swing our foot or shake our knee for a few seconds when sitting without immediately having to drink Boost (a nutritional supplement drink).
The allure of forbidden exercise returned with a vengeance. Whatever my doctors told me not to do, my eating disorder loved. I was finally released after several difficult months. My treatment team decided on a different strategy this time and I wasn’t allowed to exercise at home either, including not dancing for a minimum of a year. They put me under such intense restrictions (which I won’t go into now) that I was constantly afraid of getting in trouble and losing “privileges” (which even included being allowed to sleep in my room. Yes, that’s right, if I was caught restricting or exercising or doing anything else my parents deemed “unhealthy” I would be forced to sleep in the living room where I could be watched 24/7).
This treatment plan had the opposite effect. Instead of making me want to get better to earn more freedom, it just made me want to be sneaky with how I acted on eating disorder and compulsive exercise behaviors. I was eventually allowed to start sports (still not dance) so I tried tennis, volleyball, soccer, and lacrosse. I hated them all. Unfortunately, I continued all of these sports, despite my hatred of them, because I was so scared of gaining weight.
Every time I had a bad body image day I would exercise for hours. I felt so uncomfortable and self conscious on the days I didn’t work out. Exercise and what I ate dictated how my day went. It makes me really sad to look back on. I wasn’t able to see how miserable I had become when I was in the thick of it.
So how did I heal my relationship with exercise? It’s honestly still a bit of a work in progress, but isn’t that the case with everything in life? Regardless, I think the main thing that helped me is returning to dance. I know this seems counterproductive. How did starting to exercise competitively again make my relationship with it healthier? Well, because it wasn’t just about the exercise anymore.
When I was finally allowed to go back to dance, I was so grateful to simply be allowed to be there that I wasn’t even thinking about the amount of calories I was burning. I tried not to think of dance as exercise at all. Instead, I asked myself what it was about dance that made me truly love it. Three things came to mind: the people I have met and friendships I have been blessed with, the exhilerating feeling during a piece of choreography or after rehearsal when the endorphins are rushing, and the pride I feel when I challenge myself, develop a new skill, and nail it during choreography.
It dawned on me that the elements of dance that make me love it have NOTHING to do with burning calories or making my body look a certain way. If you play a sport or engage in a specific form of exercise, ask yourself WHY you love it. Go back to the very first sports practice or workout you did and ask yourself what made you think, “I want to do this again.” Does it have anything to do with the way your body looks? If not, know that that’s because the real benefits of exercise are internal, not external. Sure, you may see changes in your body. But, in my opinion, the thing about exercise that captivates people is the way it makes you feel.
This way of thinking helped me change the reason I exercised. Dance became the thing I looked forward to after a long day because I could see some of my best friends and enjoy their company while doing what I loved. I know this sounds easier said than done. It took a long time for me. Sometimes I would stand up and look in the mirror and immediately get the urge to go to the gym to deal with my discomfort. The best strategy I can suggest is not going to the gym or exercising and sitting with your feelings. Negatively acting on your feelings may just perpetuate the unhealthy relationship. Exercise is supposed to be done out of love and because you want to help yourself feel good in your skin!
RECAP ON TIPS TO HELP HEAL YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH EXERCISE:
- Find your why. Connect with the reasons why you first started loving exercise and try to go into working out pursuing those reasons.
- If you feel the urge to exercise out of hatred for your body, sit with your feelings. Talk it out with someone you love. Recognize that the main purpose of exercise is to make you feel good!
- Find other coping mechanisms besides exercise. Journaling, meditating, spending time with friends, painting, etc. This can be helpful on bad body image days.
- Find things you love to do besides exercise. Connect with your passions. What do you enjoy doing?
- Find a method of exercise that you love to do and can look forward to. For example, I don’t really enjoy lifting weights or HIIT but I love dance (specifically), running, pilates, and yoga and always look forward to that type of movement!
- Therapy. It can be helpful to talk out your relationship with exercise with a medical professional, especially in recovery from an eating disorder.
* This is just my experience! Consult your doctor for matters dealing with exercise that are specific to you.