How do you exercise? Is your main focus how much you are “burning”? Do you feel as though food is something you must “earn”? For a long time, thoughts of a punitive nature would pop into my head during workouts, and I unfortunately know that I am not alone. I also know that is a sad way to live life…
cw: eating disorders, weight loss/gain
My name is Linda (pronouns she/her) and in this article, I aim to give you some tips on how to exercise in a healthy way given the current circumstances (yes – I mean the c-word, but I shall refrain from mentioning it). To give you some background, I am a medical student in my penultimate year with an interest in lifestyle medicine. I probably spend more time doing other things than I do on university work, though, notably instagramming @lindadoesvegan about plant foods, veganism, more ethical living and making peace with our bodies and minds. Both in real-life conversations and online I advocate against diet culture brainwashing, often drawing on my own experiences and challenges when it comes to recovering from disordered eating and exercise habits.
Physical activity is as we all know great for health (physical and mental) and definitely something to partake in if we are able to do so. There has been a recent burst of people sharing home workouts and how to get fit during quarantine times; there is nothing wrong with that per se, but oftentimes the messages such posts and ideas send can be very unhelpful to people already struggling with their relationship toward exercise – and food.
This article focuses on exercise, but Jenny Sugar wrote a great article about the eating side of things you should check out after this titled “Why You Shouldn’t Worry About Stress Eating, Overeating, or Gaining Weight Right Now” (tap to open in a new tab).
Here follow what I hope may be some helpful tips, either for yourself or for your loved ones. As always, I am happy to be contacted via social media or my email if the commenting section is too intimidating. Take care and stay kind!
The article is divided into sections:
- do you have to exercise?
- should you be exercising?
- how should you be exercising?
- how do you protect yourself from triggers?
- resources/further reading
If you are short on time, here is a quick summary of the main points (although reading the whole thing is going to be more beneficial if this is something you are struggling with) ☼
- you do not have to exercise, you do not have to get into the shape of your life or “work off” any calories consumed during this period of your life or EVER.
- not everybody should engage in strenuous exercise such as intense cardio. check your behaviours, check your state of mind, be honest with yourself, and seek help. I am always happy to talk!
- I like dancing, yoga, pilates, walking the dog and HIIT/minimal equipment home workouts – but you should do whatever you like and are able to do!
- avoiding triggers is difficult. unfollow social media accounts with content which is unhelpful to you right now. know that it is within your right not to exercise, not to be working on a “summer body”. work on yourself, on recovery. there are so many more things to life than our physical appearance. again – I am always happy to talk if you have any particular struggles.
- remember to look after your health in other ways than just exercise. eat well (that includes tasty treats as well as whole plant foods). sleep well. stay in touch with friends, family, loved ones (FaceTime your pets, people!). get immersed in other activities: watching films, reading, embroidery, drawing, journalling, meditation.
- you got this.
- read the rest of this article… I promise it is good☺
Do You Have to Exercise?
The short answer is, of course, no.
Whatever pressures are driving you to feel like you must exercise, or even generate internal guilt, know that you do not have to. These are unprecedented and weird and difficult times. It is completely okay to feel a bit off, sad or down. This article excellently describes how we can even be considered to be going through grief stages at the moment (I recommend reading it, it will open in a new tab).
You do not have to use this time to get into the shape of your life, just because you happen to be in one place with more time on your hands. You do not have to do a HIIT workout just because your pal posted a picture of them dripping with sweat after doing one, or because Instagram influencers are producing quarantine routines for you to do at home (although no hate, many of them are excellent).
What do you fear when it comes to not exercising? If the answer is weight gain, know that there is nothing inherently wrong with it. Megan/Body posi Panda made a very good post reiterating this the other day (click! it’s on her insta from 20 March 2020).
Trigger warning for diet culture enforcing meme below:
I actually cannot stand these memes!
I know, such a party pooper for tearing apart a meme (“and a funny meme, what is wrong with her?” you ask). But this just does not sit right with me… You do not need to “work” on a “summer body”. Your summer body is the body you live in from June-August, which will most likely be similar to your body during the rest of the year. Feeling like you are “abandoning” your summer body sculpting plans in favour of some well-deserved self-care during this pandemic should serve as a wake-up call; if following such a regimen feels like a relief (whether accompanied by guilt or not) it is likely that you should have stopped a long time ago.
Build lasting habits which genuinely make you feel good. Once we are out of lockdown, will you really be able to follow an intense fitness regime alongside your normal day-to-day activities? When you return to your natural milieu and routines, so will your body. I am not discouraging you from working out a bit more now and adjusting your habits or creating new ones; it is great to have more time to spend on getting stronger and improving your endurance which you may not have had in previous more stressful daily life. But by all means, do not feel like you need to use this time to lose weight or change your behaviour drastically in an unsustainable way which you will not be able to follow once things start going back to normal.
You will definitely feel better if you manage to move around a bit each day. If you are able to go outside, I would definitely encourage you going on a daily walk outdoors (keeping a 2m distance between yourself and others). I find it helps a lot with mid-afternoon slumps 🙂
Should You be Exercising?
Not everybody can, and not everybody should be exercising (intensely at least). Let me explain: certain physical conditions are not compatible with exercise, as are some mental issues, notably eating disorders. Everybody’s eating disorder characteristics differ though, and you (together with any professionals involved in your care) are better placed than I am to make individual recommendations. If you are for example only just starting to recover from anorexia nervosa, orthorexia or exercise bulimia and the like – you are unlikely to be in a position where exercise is advisable. If you are no longer engaging with ED behaviours, and your ED involves binge eating for example, it may be safer for you to exercise. I have linked several good articles and personal testimonials below for you to read later.
As alluded to earlier, my relationship toward exercise used to be very much centred around “burning” and “earning” food. Yes, I was physically fit and strong, but I did not push myself with a positive mindset. Panic and guilt far too often prevailed when it came to how I chose my workouts. Although there is more to it, bottom line is I decided to change my habits surrounding exercise and food. I actually stopped going to the gym for a period of time, actively resisting my urges to exercise as part of my recovery. I still skip a gym day on purpose if I feel old habits creeping back. My favourite forms of exercise nowadays (in no particular order) are weight lifting, swimming, yoga, pilates, short HIIT workouts, dancing and going on walks! I often feel happy, fulfilled, strong and proud of myself after some movement – there should not be any negative connotations.
As a future doctor with an interest in lifestyle medicine, me saying that some people should not be exercising may sound a bit wack. Of course I am a big advocate for physical activity and exercise – but there are different forms of exercise. While I would personally not recommend intense exercise for everybody, I would strongly encourage physical movement every day for everybody who is able to partake in it, preferably involving some fresh air.
I cannot tell you whether or not you should be exercising, or how (unless you directly ask me). I hope the examples below clarify what I mean and help you see for yourself what type of exercise is suitable for you.
What do I mean by (intense) exercising?
- HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workouts or aerobic exercise classes like Zumba, LesMills
- Weight lifting, heavy resistance training
- Long(/er) distance power walking, runs, cycles and swims
- Intense/advanced pilates, barre, some forms of yoga
- Essentially, frequent super strenuous cardio or equivalent
What do I mean by engaging in physical movement?
- Walking at comfortable/moderate speed and shorter jogs, cycles and swims
- Gentle yoga flows and pilates
- Practicing doing the splits, stretching and headstands
- Doing some silly dancing in your room
- Shorter workouts involving body weight or sometimes with equipment
- Essentially, some form of purposeful physical activity or exercise (not just brushing your teeth or getting out of bed and walking to the toilet – although they are all essential so well done for doing them)
So in summary: you know best what your body can deal with and what is suitable for you. If you are struggling with feelings of guilt around eating and exercise, you may suffer from disordered eating or exercise patterns. It is likely that you would benefit from stopping the type of exercise you are harmfully engaging in, drastically limiting the amount you do or change the circumstances you do it in.
There always is help to find! You can still go to your GP or seek help from other medical professionals at this time. There are also online services, such as online therapy and coaching, as well as some pretty helpful eating disorder recovery resources (some linked below).
How Should You Exercise?
For this, you have to keep the aforementioned point in mind and make a judgement based on what you think is true, weighing in advice from well-intentioned loved ones and healthcare professionals.
Keeping what has been discussed so far in mind, pick whatever “appropriate” form of physical activity you would like! And remember why you are working out: I would recommend focusing on building up strength or resilience as a goal, or just the fact that a bit of gentle movement will make you feel better (what a win!).
Weight loss is a bad goal because 1) it can cause you to engage in disordered eating/exercise behaviours and 2) any weight loss created by drastic measures is highly unlikely to stay off anyway. You are better off developing healthy, enjoyable and sustainable habits for a stable weight around your body’s set point. This is a complex topic I could discuss for ages, and slightly beside the main point I am trying to make here. The bottom line is: diets do not work long-term, and neither do quick-fix workout plans or drastic weight-loss methods. If it worked, we would all look like the societal ideals(ish – minus the Photoshop). Your body is likely to plateau at a certain point, too. I am saying this because if there are any people with disordered eating out there reading this, I know that for me one of the only things stopping me in the past has been the scientific facts, so there you go – drastic weight-loss is not only damaging, it is unsustainable.
I like to make myself a bit of a schedule, as I thrive with structure. I roughly plan my weekly exercise to serve as an indication of things to do rather than an obligation: if I really do not want to workout, I do not force myself. I may write down something as simple as “go for a walk” or more complex like “leg workout” and write a plan for what exercises to do. A really useful thing someone in recovery can do is to create yourself a safety net (mentioned by Robyn Cruze here, and in another article here which recommends a maximum of 45-60 mins/day), i.e. setting yourself an upper limit to make sure you are not overexercising.
Depending on what you are doing, you may want to use equipment or timer apps on your phone. Importantly; make sure you have some good tunes to work out to, or nice calming music for your yoga!
Do not forget to stretch for flexibility and better posture. I also like finishing up with some meditation, either guided from Headspace or similar apps, or just take some time sitting and breathing and relishing in the moment. Be proud of what you just did – you moved and your body will thank you for it!
Triggers and Other Concerns
How do you make it more difficult for your ED voices to lure you in? Unfortunately, we cannot guarantee ourselves protection from triggers. As far as possible, however, unfollow any social media accounts which create negative feelings within you. If you are finding it hard to look at pictures of shredded people and captions telling you how to “get fit”, “lose weight” or “don’t be a couch potato!!” – these are probably the ones to say farewell to or at least mute. If you are truly honest with yourself, I know you can tell which ones are unhelpful to your recovery goals (I always could, even if I did not want to admit it). Similarly, fill your feed with genuinely empowering, inspiring and positive influences.
You do not need to follow workout instagrammers in order to keep fit, find workout content or receive (unhelpful) “reminders” to exercise. Stick to your schedule (if you have one) and only look for workout inspiration when you actually need it.
How do you look for exercise inspiration though, when typing in “workout” in the YouTube search bar suggests “workout for weightloss”? I admit this can be difficult. Some suggestions are:
- search for whatever you were looking to do and attempt to ignore/filter out click-baity talk about “fat burn” and “weight-loss”
- quit a routine if it feels wrong; if the instructor is yelling stupid things yelling at you (“how much do you want that body??? work for it!!!” like seriously. no. thanks.), if you realise it may be too intense than what is “appropriate” for your needs or if you are triggered in any other way. there will be thousands of other better suited videos for you to follow.
- instead of using instructional videos, build your own workouts. googling exercises (such as “leg exercises without weights”) is often much less daunting. or do something which your body may know how to do already, such as dancing/ stretching/going for a walk.
- ask someone you trust to look up something on your behalf, and send you a link. or do a lil bit of exercise together (if you are in the same household).
- do recommend your favourite recovery-friendly workout accounts, bloggers and videos below 🙂
How do you deal with people around you making you feel guilty for not exercising, or not exercising “enough”? First of all remember it is within your right not to, and that you owe no-one any justification for your behaviour. Acknowledge that feelings of guilt are coming from external pressures and internal expectations you have set yourself which are oftentimes unrealistic. You deserve a break, the world deserves a break. If you are able to talk freely about your disordered eating/exercising, inform people who are judging your behaviours that their attitudes are not helpful to your recovery. If you have never mentioned it to them before, now may be a good time to bring it up – if you think they will be supportive. Recognise that they (hopefully) come from a place of concern and love, simply acting in an unhelpful manner. Tell them how you would like them to discuss these topics with you, or ask them to refrain from doing so. Maybe even bring up some of the ideas I have discussed here so far? I believe many of us suffer from disordered thinking in general about eating and exercise, due to societal expectations and pressures. And if they are absolute shits – I am sorry. Try to block them out and interact with them as little as possible, or change the topic of conversation to something you get along about.
eat enough, eat well, and enjoy your food.
do not weigh yourself. progress pics can be an alternative, but only if you are in the right frame of mind to do so. base progress on how you act and feel.
do something nice as an act of self care, whatever that means to you
do not beat yourself up for whatever it is you are feeling negative about when it comes to yourself. treat yourself like you would treat a friend who came to you with the issues you are having. why are we so willing to be accepting of others but ruthless to ourselves?
try going on a walk or alternative form of exercise. it does help with mood even though i know it is shit if you are feeling shit. some days, pouring cereal into a bowl may be your only physical activity and that is okay.
Resources/further reading (tap to open in new tab)
All the love in the world,
Contact me here.