Exercise: Friend or Foe?

For my “homework assignment” this week, my dietitian asked me to write about what my relationship with exercise is and what a healthy one would look like, because obviously, for quite an extended period of time, my relationship with exercise was very unhealthy.

When I started my sophomore year at UMass, I was determined to actually make use of the recreation center, having gone there all of maybe five times the previous year. But I wasn’t one for spending hours running on a treadmill or endlessly churning my legs on an elliptical. I wanted something more creative and fun. So when I found out that there were cardio kickboxing classes that I could sign up for, I was so excited. It really seemed like something in my wheelhouse, and would also be a great workout.

So I started attending a couple classes a week, sweating up a storm, and then heading out for a typically restrictive meal afterwards. Unfortunately, this soon wasn’t enough for my eating disorder. I transitioned to eating less and less while exercising more and more. Soon I was at the gym every opportunity I got. I would put my workout clothes in my bag in the morning so that as soon as my classes were done, I could walk the short distance to the center and waste no time at all.

At the time, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with what I was doing. I was eating, right? And I was exercising, right? So I was being healthy.

Wrong.

My relationship with food is easily the most difficult one I have, but my relationship with exercise is a close second.

I want to be healthy. That was always my ultimate goal. I was dissatisfied with my current physical state of wellbeing, and sought to improve it. However, I underestimated just how potent my eating disorder was. I didn’t even think I had one. I had so misconstrued my image of “health” that I had managed to convince myself that the way I was slowly but surely destroying myself was somehow beneficial.

Recovery, unfortunately, comes with a lot of weight gain. And even more unfortunately, this weight gain tends to center itself in the abdominal and facial regions, two areas which have always been a sore point for me. I’ve never really been comfortable with the way that I’ve looked. And gaining a lot of adipose tissue doesn’t make me happy at all. It seems like my worst fear is being realized. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve used the word “fat” to describe myself. Yet I look at other people of relatively similar body compositions, and don’t have a negative thought in my brain about them. It’s all reserved for me. Somehow, I’m special, but in a thoroughly negative way. Somehow, I’m different than anyone else.

In my mind, afflicted by anorexia as it is, this “difference” plays out with the following two thoughts. 

  1. “I don’t need to eat as much as everyone else.”
  2. “I gain weight more than anyone else.”

And of course, this is not true. One of my favorite all time articles that I’ve read on the subject is “You are not a unicorn”. As the title suggests, this is a post that demonstrates why someone suffering with an eating disorder (in fact, I’d venture so far as to say especially someone who is dealing with an eating disorder) needs a certain amount of calories and a more sedentary lifestyle in order to undo the harm done to the body. It breaks down the caloric needs of the average human body, delving into the specifics of why a certain amount of energy is necessary not only to survive, but to thrive.

But I digress.

What would a healthy relationship with exercise look like for me? Well, certainly not what I was doing at school. I was so hung up on the idea of needing to exercise every day that I literally had a mental breakdown when I wasn’t able to go one day in early winter; I had such a massive panic attack that I came to the realization that I needed help, and I needed it badly.

But I don’t think not exercising at all is healthy, either. What needs to be found is some sort of happy medium, where I do exercise to feel better, not as a way to punish myself. Because that’s what it became. Eating became the activity that needed to be penalized, and exercise became the means of compensating for engaging in such an “evil” behavior. To this day, this mindset sticks around: I still feel ridiculously guilty whenever I eat, especially if I’m eating around other people.

Essentially, I want to be able to have exercise in my life as a means of happiness. I don’t want to exercise because I feel guilty. I don’t want to sit on my butt all day either. And now that I’ve been in weight maintenance for a while now, I think I’m finally ready to start integrating exercise, at healthy amounts, back into my life.

I want to be able to do karate again. I was supposed to test for my third degree black belt in May; now I’ve had to postpone it because of how ill I was. I want to be able to play soccer. I want to be able to go to the gym in moderation. I want to be able to enjoy exercising again, and in so doing, enjoy my life more on the whole.

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