Eating Disorder Recovery in the Gym, by Julia Manson Cheng

It’s been quite a few years since my own personal journey into recovery from an eating disorder (anorexia), although I still clearly remember the days when exercise was a compulsive activity. It was exhausting to push my body hard in the gym on so little energy and it was also mentally draining to constantly feel compelled to exercise my body away. Soon after starting the recovery process I learned how effective it was to continually challenge myself by taking small steps, to slowly move away from living in a dysfunctional way. The more I could distance myself from the disorder and interrupt the patterns that had become sabotaging habits, the faster I recovered and built a better existence. Fitness was one of the things that helped me reclaim my life.

My light bulb moment happened at the gym. For the first time I attended a ladies only group fitness class in Vancouver. There were women of all ages, shapes and sizes eagerly anticipating the workout. Many had arrived early to claim a spot. It was obviously a popular class. Finally the instructor entered the room, set up her music and microphone and began teaching. It wasn’t long before her contagious energy and enthusiasm bounced off the walls. Everyone in the room could feel it too. They moved and clapped in sync, laughed, and cheered out “whoo!” once in a while. It was an amazing experience. Then when the last drop of sweat hit the floor and class was over, the group expressed their heartfelt gratitude by applauding and cheering, as if the instructor were a famous celebrity. It was a powerful experience to witness. What I picked up on was how she influenced the group. Every step she took and every word spoken had an impact. She had full control of everyone in the room, and was held in high regard by the participants for her skills and professionalism. At that moment I pictured myself in her role and wondered what it would be like to have so much power. I saw myself teaching in my tight-fitting workout gear, fully vulnerable in front of a group of women who had high expectations of receiving quality instruction and a great workout. I wondered “Could I really pull it off?” Getting certified to teach fitness (in my mind) would equal success, influence and power (three things I needed). I wondered if accomplishing this goal would change the trajectory of my life. And you know what? It did.

What had once been an accessory for running an eating disorder at full speed became the catalyst for change. Exercise became a huge part of my healing strategy and eventually my career. I’d like to share with you some important strategies for staying on track in your recovery while still participating in an exercise routine for optimal health. There’s a fine line that needs to be acknowledged when someone is in the recovery process and wishes to participate in a fitness program. Since exercise is often used to control body weight, it can trigger old patterns to emerge. There are many things you can do to ensure that you’re exercising for health and not to fuel a disorder. Here are my top 4:

1. Discuss your intention to exercise with your health care provider and therapist. It’s important to know what your physical and mental state is prior to starting a fitness routine in order to choose an appropriate activity to compliment your recovery.
2. Before every workout ask “What is my intention for exercising?”. Honour your body by working out for healthy reasons and resist serving in to your eating disorders agenda.
3. Use a journal to record feelings before and after exercise, and review it frequently. If you start to notice a destructive pattern emerging you can share your findings with your health care provider or therapist, and revise your strategy.
4. Practice yoga. Yoga is a physical and mindful practice that is used in many eating disorder recovery programs. A regular practice will condition you to be self-aware in daily life so you can make responsible choices for your well-being and self-care. Participate in classes that are slow-paced and grounding, with breathing work and meditation components (eg. moon practice) to learn how to be in your body, calm, present and content.

I hope that this blog post will inspire you to take the best possible care of your body and help you on your journey to freedom.

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