To have a successful eating disorder, you have to disconnect from your body (aka when exercise isn’t good).
I recently attended a webinar by LeAnne Tolley, ERYT, CHES (ERYT = experienced registered yoga teacher, CHES = certified health education specialist) on exercise obsessions and I wanted to share what I learned.
Working in EDs means constant learning for me, so I’m happy for you to learn things as I learn them. There were some things in the webinar that really resonated with me (honestly this was one of the most interesting webinars I’ve ever listened to). While I don’t engage in unhealthful exercise behaviors anymore, I still enjoy understanding exercise obsessions more.
Quick reminder before we get into the webinar…I think people forget that the diagnostic criteria from the DSM 5 for bulimia is:
- recurrent inappropriate compensatory behaviors in order to prevent weight gain, such as self-induced vomiting; misses of laxatives; diuretics, or of other medications; fasting; or EXCESSIVE EXERCISE
- behavior occurs at least once a week for 3 months
- self evaluation is unduly influenced by body shape and weight
I sometimes think people forget that bulimia can mean exercising in a way to “get rid of” food. Just wanted to mention that for you to keep in mind.
I will not mention the benefits of exercise once in this post because I write the blog that would’ve helped me get out of my ED. Never once in ED recovery did I see a blog post about the benefits of not exercising or really even that it is okay to not exercise. That would’ve really freaking helped me in the 4+ years I spent struggling with bulimia. What I saw was bloggers showing their exercise plans for the week, which always pulled me farther and farther away from listening to what felt good in my body.
Of course I don’t blame those bloggers for the development of my ED…ED development is a perfect storm of a whole bunch of factors all coming together to produce an ED. ED development is caused by biological factors (genetic predisposition for an ED), physiological factors (perfectionistic or impulsive personality types, and depressed/anxious mood states) and social factors (influence from family/friend, media, BLOGS, social media, etc. that drives one towards an ED). Some blogs/social media accounts are just one piece that contributes to the ugly ED development puzzle.
I shared on instagram on Saturday that recovering from an unhealthy relationship with food and exercise is tough because we live in a society that encourages you to make your body smaller and move your body regularly. Overexercise and “healthy” eating are all socially acceptable ways to continue having your ED. I want to mention here that I am using the term ‘ED’, but even if you haven’t been diagnosed with an eating disorder or are told you don’t have an eating disorder, that doesn’t mean the behaviors you are doing aren’t ruining your life.
I am glad I had an ED rather than less severe disordered behaviors around food and exercise because if you have an ED you are more likely to get help because you hit rock bottom. If the food and exercise behaviors you engage in aren’t severe enough to be classified as an ED, you may not get help. You may go your whole life living with dysfunctional eating/exercise behaviors and negative body thoughts without ever getting help. I’m hear to say that even if you aren’t diagnosed with an ED, your behaviors can still be distressing enough to need help. Don’t go around thinking, “oh it’s not that bad, I’m fine.” Because we all know “fine” means Freaked out, Insecure, Neurotic, and Emotional. So as I use the term “ED,” know I am really referring to any level of dysfunction in your relationship with eating/exercise/body.
Okay. Onto the webinar.
In the webinar, one of the great things LeAnne did was compare those with peanut allergies to those with exercise obsessions. She mentioned a program that was developed to bring jars of peanut butter to malnourished children in 3rd world countries. For many children, this saved their lives, but for those with a peanut allergy eating peanut butter was deadly. It’s the same with exercise. For some, exercise is fabulous, but for others it’s a giant soul suck that ruins their life and can do serious damage to their health. When you come across exercise recommendations, remember that not all advice is good for everyone. Don’t be a sponge! You have the right to be critical of any advice you are given about YOUR body from family members, friends, doctors and even from me.
LeAnne discussed that in those with healthful relationships to food and body, as exercise increases, food intake increases naturally (aka when you end up more hungry…you eat!) In those with EDs, as exercise increases, nutrition decreases (because you are so disconnected from your body and honoring what it needs). As a result of this, you could end up in a malnourished state. It is common for peripheral neuropathy to accompany malnutrition. Having peripheral neuropathy means you have numbness and tingles in your hands/feet and this raises your perceived pain threshold. Raising the pain threshold prevents you from connecting to your pain cues and prevents you from knowing when to stop exercising. Another thing that disconnects you from your body.
I often wonder if the tingling sensations I still have in my legs is due to damage I did in the past to my body when I was in my own exercise compulsion. No doctor has ever been able to confirm that for me though. Currently my MD thinks it’s a vascular issue.
Another thing the webinar addressed was using intense exercise for stress relief. I get told quite frequently by clients that exercise is a way to decrease anxiety and cope with stress (I so believed this when I was working out obsessively!). But I’ve since realized that the kinds of exercise I was doing then never helped me feel calmer. LeAnne explained that exercise isn’t a mood improvement technique…it’s an avoidance technique. Clients say, “exercise takes away all my problems and my brain becomes calm.” You haven’t really calmed the brain though, because when you finish you still have the same problems.
In a unhealthy relationship with movement, we (in a way) move our body’s faster than brain via intense cardio activities – running/fast walking/swimming/spinning. The hyperactivity of our body when exercising moves faster than our brain activity and it is a way to temporarily numb out. Moving faster than our brain alleviates all tension and stress and makes the brain feel temporarily calm (hello, endorphin release). When we stop moving faster than our brain and endorphins die down, the brain is still anxious. All the movement did is temporarily mask what is going on. Did you actually resolve your problems on that run? Nope, but you sure avoided them.
Something LeAnne also mentioned was that compulsive exercise is done in a covert way (similar to how a drug addict does drugs), so no onlooker will realize how much they are actually exercising. Yup. That was me. You’re ED makes you into a super sneaky, isolated, and lonely liar.
To have a successful eating disorder, you have to disconnect from your body. Exercise did just that for me. The movement I was doing then helped dissociate me from my body, the movement I’m doing now helps me embody and be connected to every part of my body. To connect to your body, your movement should be mindful…not mindless. See the graphic below to check in on where your movement stands…
You find health by listening to your body. Health is not in a meal plan, food restriction, a sugar detox (in spite of what your yoga studio may say) or a weekly exercise routine. I would encourage you to not overvalue the nutrition information you come across and instead start to value your inner body wisdom that guides you in how to move and how to eat. I don’t know how much movement you should do…but your body does if you choose to listen to it.
For me, I have no exercise routine. I move in a way that feels good. And right now with a lot of knee pain going on, that means attending physical therapy sessions, engaging in gentle movement, and minimizing any kind of squating motions or high impact movements.
If you are interested in learning more about my thoughts on movement, I’d recommend this post on getting out of an exercise compulsion and this video module on truly healthy movement.
Would love to hear your thoughts on this post:)