I was the girl hiding in her closet at 2:00 a.m. doing crunches because I couldn’t sleep. I was private to the point of fault. No one could see me work out. Why was I so secretive? I’m not sure.
What I do know is, it wasn’t just exercising that I concealed. It was food too. For some reason, I hated the idea of anyone watching me eat.
I’d starve myself all day and if I felt like I was about to pass out, I’d eat a handful of anything in sight. Then, at dinner, I’d have enough for an entire week. This is called binge eating.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, binge eating is characterized by recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food (often very quickly and to the point of discomfort). Normally, you feel a loss of control during the binge. And after, you can expect to experience shame, distress or guilt. But it gets worse.
Regularly using unhealthy compensatory measures (i.e., purging or excessively working out) to counter the binge eating calories is how this episode normally ends.
Luckily, my series is basically over. Flash forward six years, and I see now, that these were all signs of an eating disorder. When I finally made the decision to seek treatment, I knew I had to change my behavior. I needed to alter how I looked at fitness and my relationship with food. At the end of the day, I wanted to not only look good but feel good too.
So, let’s start at the beginning.
I know this all sounds crazy and you’re definitely right, except eating disorders are. They make no sense. Mine told me to binge. To stuff my face until I could barely move, not because I wanted to, not because I enjoyed it, but simply as a method of painful self-punishment.
And the craziest part, I didn’t even want to harm myself (or at least, I didn’t think).
After the shameful episodes of binging, I’d spend hours on the treadmill or doing anything to burn those calories. My body hurt, I was tired, my potassium dropped to levels that could have killed me, but the self-destructive behavior continued as did my need to be skinny.
What I’m describing is a fairly common term in the eating disorder community —for this obsession with working out. It’s called *over-exercising. I describe it as an all-consuming fixation on the amount of food you eat and matching those calories with an excessive amount of exercise in order to burn more than you consumed.
I would cancel plans with friends so I could work out in secret without my parents knowing.
I would pace on the spot when standing to try to burn additional calories. Exercise wasn’t fun anymore. It transferred from being a way of expressing myself through competition and play to being another way my eating disorder was enslaving me to the point beyond exhaustion. In short, I lost authority over my own body.
The Idea of Control
People with eating disorders often use exercise for weight loss, self-punishment, or as a form of control. Exercise often becomes both compulsive and unenjoyable. During an eating disorder, exercise seems to be about pushing yourself to lose weight, and not caring what it takes to get there, which is anything but healthy.
Unhealthy exercise includes ignoring your body’s signals of pain and fatigue.
So when you give into temptation and actually eat that donut you’ve been dreaming about, you now have to work out until you burn every last calorie. The thing is, your calories in have to match your calories out.
When I had been deemed OK by my therapist to start working out again, the thought of having to eat more was terrifying. I wasn’t ready, and I was scared it would lead to me over-exercising again. But I had to remember that being scared was OK, too.
Finding the Power Within
On the other end, moving away from an eating disorder and into recovery often leads to a change of attitude regarding exercise. People find that they start to work out for health and relaxation, rather than to lose weight. Exercise becomes about taking care of your health and body, rather than for control or just to burn calories.
As usual, with recovery from an eating disorder, there’s no quick fix to exercising healthily.
It involves treating your body in a more caring way and changing the way you feel about exercise as well as the way you engage with it. Do your best to love and accept your body at its healthy weight for all its magnificence before starting to strengthen it through activities.
Set small goals for yourself regarding what you, your professionals, and your support system think are good decisions. For me, I started with wanting to walk around my neighborhood again, something I had given up when my eating disorder started taking hold.
Recap after whatever activity you did to see how you’re feeling physically and mentally.
Try to appreciate just how strong your body now is. Because it’s exhilarating and euphoric when I feel the muscles in my legs propelling me forward when I’m working out in a way that my fatigued and starved body would never have been able to do.
I have a healthy body again that allows me to do the things I love, not because of how many calories it burns, but because it’s fun. I feel ridiculously empowered. I have a deep appreciation for what my body has accomplished, how far it has come as well as what it allows me to do. I don’t hide anymore either. And I think you can get here too.
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