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Reintroducing Movement in Eating Disorder Recovery

As you work to rebuild your relationship with food and your body, it may also be important to also explore your relationship with movement. During parts of the recovery process, especially at the beginning of eating disorder recovery, movement may need to be removed or significantly reduced because, more often than not, the relationship with exercise and movement is one of compensation, punishment, and starvation. Furthermore, if you are not adequately fueling or hydrating yourself and/or are engaging in compensatory behaviors, it may not be nutritionally or medically safe to engage in exercise or exercise.

Movement is very individualized and should always be discussed with your treatment team. This blog post is written with the assumption that you are medically, nutritionally, and therapeutically appropriate to begin reintroducing movement in recovery. Below, you will find tips and tricks on cultivating a healthy and peaceful relationship with movement.

You’ll notice that throughout this blog post, we utilize the term “movement” instead of “exercise.” Word choice is important because words have different associations for different people. “Exercise” refers to formal structured movement, typically done at the gym or a studio, usually with the goal of burning calories or altering body shape/size. Exercise is often associated with punishment, a way to compensate for what you ate, or a way to earn food, and it’s often seen as something you force yourself to do and feels like a chore. In contrast, “movement” refers to any way you move your body, not just movement done as part of structured exercise. This may include movement done in a structured gym setting but can also include hiking, gardening, stretching, walking the dog, or cleaning the house. “Movement” is more inclusive and focuses on joy/pleasure of moving the body.

Explore the Function of Movement

It may be helpful to first define why you want to move your body in recovery: what function does movement serve for you? As mentioned previously, movement in the eating disorder often involves punishment, compensation, and body manipulation. In recovery, movement can be a source of joy, social connection, stress/anxiety relief, energy, self-care, connection to nature, connection to your body, and a way of improving strength/mobility (regardless of body size or body composition). An important question to ask yourself is, “Would I still choose to engage in this activity if there was no chance of it changing my body?”. This will help you reflect on the purpose and function of movement and if it’s primarily motivated by your eating disorder or your recovered self.

Begin With Gentle and Joyful Movement and Try New Types of Movement

You may be asking yourself, what is gentle movement? According to Denver Metro Counseling, gentle movement includes walking, yoga, dancing, stretching, and doing household chores like cleaning your house or apartment and gardening. Practicing slow, gentle movement has health benefits and reinforces that movement does not have to be intense, painful, or harsh to benefit your body and mind. With the guidance of your treatment team, begin with slow and gentle movement to discover ways you can move your body that serve you and not the eating disorder. It can also be helpful to think about movement activities you enjoyed before your eating disorder. What was your favorite activity as a child before movement became focused on compensation, burning calories, and manipulating your body? Did you enjoy team sports? Hula hoop? Jumping rope? Dancing? Returning to joyful movement that has never been influenced by your eating disorder, or trying a brand new type of movement, is important as you reintroduce movement into your recovered life. Avoid initially engaging in movement that your eating disorder used for its agenda because that could lead you back to old eating disorder ways and habits.

Slowly Introduce Movement Into Your Routine

Discussing movement with your team before incorporating it into your routine is always important. Whatever types of gentle movement you and your team have determined appropriate for you, introduce it slowly to prevent old habits of “needing” to exercise from creeping back into your mind. For instance, maybe yoga is something you have never tried before. You can find online videos for more gentle styles of yoga that you can do at home (a personal favorite of mine is Yoga With Adriene). Also, make it a point to practice movement when it conveniently works for you, and try to avoid carving out time that interferes with your everyday life or plans you have already made with friends and family.

Set Time Limits

Not only is it important to limit how many days you incorporate movement, but it is essential that you set a limit on how long you are engaging in movement. Depending on where you are in your recovery, this can look very different from person to person, so working with your team is crucial in maintaining and continuing your progress in recovery thus far. It also may depend on the movement you are doing. Setting time limits can be helpful so you can focus on the movement rather than fitness statistics like steps taken or calories burned. 

Notice How Different Types Of Movement Feel

Your relationship with movement may have begun as forced and needed to compensate or earn food and nutrients. It could have been painful, intense, and not feeling good in your body. As you move your body again, this time gently, pay attention to how it feels physically and mentally. Take moments to pause during your gentle movement and notice how your body and mind feel. Does the movement you are engaging in feel good? Are you enjoying this type of movement? Do you feel like you are forcing yourself to start and continue this movement? Do you experience a sense of dread thinking about it? Do you feel like you are genuinely looking forward to begin? These are all great questions to reflect upon as you reintroduce movement again. It is okay to stop when the movement no longer serves you and not to enjoy certain kinds of movement. There are many ways to move your body, so finding what feels good for you may take time.

Fuel Appropriately for Movement

Do not stop following the prescribed meal plan created by your treatment team, and be mindful that your meal plan may need to be modified as you move your body more. Movement requires energy, and part of re-introducing movement in recovery and taking care of your body is ensuring you give your body adequate fuel and hydration before, during, and after movement. It’s important to discuss this with your individual dietitian. Be mindful of thoughts about “earning” food, burning calories, and compensation. Refocus your attention on moving your body and fueling appropriately as self-care.

At BALANCE eating disorder treatment center™, our compassionate, highly skilled team of clinicians is trained in diagnosing and treating the spectrum of eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, compulsive overeating, and other disordered eating behaviors and body image issues. Click here to watch our Instagram Live with BALANCE Founder & CEO Melainie Rogers and Assistant Director of Nutrition Services Sarah Mandel (she/her) about shifting your relationship with movement. Watch and learn how to go from seeing exercise as a form of punishment to finding joy in the movements that you really love. 

Our admissions team is happy to answer any questions about BALANCE’s programs. Read more about our philosophy here, or book a free consultation call with our admissions team to discuss the next steps here.

This post was written by BALANCE Blog Contributor, Tori Barkosky (she/her). 

Tori is a recent graduate of St. Catherine University, having earned a B.A. in Psychology and a minor in Nutrition Science. Tori is passionate about all things related to intuitive eating, HAES, mental health, body respect, eating disorders, and disordered eating. She also geeks out on neuroscience and loves studying the brain and its anatomy. Tori currently works as a Mental Health Practitioner at an eating disorder clinic. Outside work, she enjoys practicing yoga, exploring nature, and drinking coffee.

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