Where does Fitness Fit in with Recovery?

The main thing I have heard over and over again from friends in recovery, and personal feelings I had while recovering, centered around the muscle versus fat debate. I guess I wouldn’t even really call it a debate; moreso a fear that I have noticed arises when it comes to anorexia recovery. And it’s a completely justified fear! When we live in a society that places so much emphasis on fitness and having a “toned” body, it’s no wonder that anxiety develops (or increases) particularly throughout the weight gain stage of recovery.

“All of the food will stick to my stomach.”
“I am permanently bloated.”
“When will the weight distribute?”
“I need to start working out so that I can turn my ‘fat’ into muscle.”

I have said or thought each one of these; and it’s important to note that each one of these negative thoughts plays an equally negative of a role in recovery and maintenance. They further anorexia’s need for physical perfection, adhering to societal expectations of what beauty is, and also create unrealistic demands on a body that may still be extremely malnourished.

As someone who always loved living an active lifestyle (even before my anorexia diagnosis), I was frustrated when exercise could not play a role in my life throughout my recovery. As I began to reach the final stages of my weight restoration, I made the personal decision to include exercise. So it’s hard for me to tell friends that I support throughout their recovery NOT to exercise, or to rely on stretching as the main source of movement (temporarily). It’s hard to hear friends share their anxieties about weight distribution, and how much they want to look like the female fitness models they see on Instagram because I had those thoughts as well. And because I did begin my own training “program” as I was nearing my full weight restoration.

What I WILL ask anyone who struggles with these thoughts, and is considering including exercise into their recovery: is recovery possible for you if exercise is a part of it? 

Harder question to answer than it may initially seem. Here are some things to consider when you’re struggling with the idea of exercise or choosing to include fitness into your anorexia treatment:

What is the motivation?

Anorexia can be extremely sneaky and manipulative. Exercise may sound great in writing, and is actually encouraged to maintain a healthy lifestyle. However, does anorexia have a different plan in mind for you when you decide to being exercising? Have an honest conversation with yourself regarding the extent that you want exercise to play a role in your life. While you may be telling yourself that you want a healthy relationship with exercise and want to create an active lifestyle, anorexia may have another idea behind it. For example, anorexia may be creating a compensatory relationship with food and exercise. Pay attention to whether exercise becomes more enticing after eating a challenge food. Ask yourself: do I feel the need to work out after I ate that extra slice of pizza today? Also pay attention to whether you feel that exercise gives you permission to eat fear foods. If you answer yes to either of these questions, I would encourage you to rethink if exercise can actually play a positive role in your life at your current point in recovery.

Remind yourself that no exercise is temporary!

When at critical condition, and throughout the initial stages of recovery treatment, it’s CRUCIAL that you do not exercise. Your body cannot meet the demands that physical exertion places on it. Do not place yourself at risk. Do not place yourself in a situation that will only further increase the life threatening consequences of anorexia. I recognize how hard it is not to exercise; I felt restless, I felt lazy, and I certainly felt impatient. Remind yourself that exercise restriction is temporary. While exercise may not be a part of your recovery plan, it does not mean that it never will be a part of your life again. Use this as motivation to get healthy again, and to include exercise in a healthy and positive way.

Exercise and eat more

As much as I try to focus more on the emotional and psychological component of anorexia recovery, it’s inevitable to have a conversation about food when it comes to exercise. When you decide to exercise as a part of your recovery plan or maintenance plan, you have to eat more. Simple as that. Caloric intake must be increased to maintain a healthy weight, or to continue gaining, because of the increased amount of calories that are obviously burned during your work out. When I decided that I was at a mentally healthy point in my recovery to start including exercise, I was so fearful to increase my food intake. I didn’t think it was necessary. How could my short workout possibly have any influence on my weight? It did. I quickly learned to listen to my body, and to remind myself that in order to continue progressing in my recovery, I had to alter my caloric intake. It wasn’t easy at first; it still wasn’t easy after the first few months. But, little by little I began to view food more and more as fuel. Food was the biggest component to reaching my ultimate goal of fitness: gaining my strength back and feeling strong. Your body will not respond to your exercise or training routine, and you will not gain strength, if you do not fuel it properly with what it needs.

Stop comparing yourself and start slow

If you’re on Instagram and follow any female fitness model or female athlete, you’ll see what appears to be a “perfectly” sculpted body, typically accompanied by captions that detail their exact work out for the day. Let me state this clearly: this work out is not meant to be copied during your recovery. Just because the fitness model is pushing her body to extremes, does not mean your body is physically ready to do the same. Your body needs to be respected and honored. If it needs rest, give it rest. This is nothing to feel ashamed of, or to make you feel weak. By giving your body rest, you’re making it stronger. By getting off Instagram, you’re creating your own goals of personal fitness and strength that aren’t dependent on others. We all are given a different body with different limits. The excitement of this process is discovering what works for YOU. Just because the fitness model may love weight training and intense circuits doesn’t mean you have to. And when you discover what it is that you genuinely enjoy, start slow. Remember that your body has just been through excessive physical stress and is still recovering internally. Give it the time it needs to still heal, and be patient with its current abilities. The excitement here is feeling your body and amount of energy change over time, rather than overnight.

Identify your red flags

You should not be feeling guilt or shame if you miss a work out. You should not be feeling down on yourself if you’re physically tired (or mentally tired) and don’t have any desire to exercise. If you’re feeling these ways, consider the option of including exercise at a further point in your recovery. If you’re rationalizing the way that you eat when you start exercising (“I can have my fear food today only if I exercise”) or feeling the need to increase the amount of time you’re at the gym are also red flags. Anorexia results with extremely habitual and obsessive behaviors; watch for your own personal red flags and triggers so that exercise does not become one of them. Take control of your exercise routine (how often, for how long, and how will you nourish your body appropriately) so that exercise does not begin to control you and your recovery.



Nicole works as a life and wellness coach through Nicole Leigh Coaching (www.nicolenessLPC.com) Nicole strives to empower women with similar struggles to redefine and re-identify themselves, separate from their eating disorder. Through her work, she empowers women to use balance in every aspect of life to maintain lifelong recovery. When Nicole isn't blogging or counseling, she loves spending her time traveling, eating burgers, and surrounding herself with positive people.