xercise is a great way to promote physical, mental, and emotional well-being, but is it recommended during eating disorder recovery? Answers tend to vary amongst healthcare professionals, and the best advice is to always listen to your treatment team. However, one thing is typically agreed upon: when exercise is permitted, it should be mindful, joyful, and focused on improving well-being and the relationship with your body. (1)
What is Mindful Exercise?
It is common for people with eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, and bulimia nervosa to have fraught relationships with exercise. Many individuals struggling with an eating disorder also engage in excessive exercise, which can lead to exercise addiction, an unhealthy and compulsive pattern of physical activity, typically for weight control or mood control. Little to no pleasure is derived from exercise in this context; rather, exercising is a part of a rigid routine and is used as a way to “compensate” for eating.
Conversely, during eating disorder recovery, healthcare providers often encourage individuals to renegotiate their relationship to exercise by engaging in mindful movement that is focused on pleasure and joy, as opposed to outcomes or punishment. Mindful movement allows you to have fun while exercising while feeling good about your body.
According to research, mindful movement encompasses any activity that’s done with the following: (2)
The purpose of mindful movement is to strengthen the connection between your mind and body. In addition, mindful movement can help reframe your mindset from that of appearance-based or outcome-focused exercise to that of movement for the joy of and pleasure of engaging your body in ways that ultimately are founded on an intrinsic desire to care for your body.
Examples of Mindful Movement
Certain types of movements and activities can improve mental and physical well-being in those in eating disorder recovery. These pleasurable and mindful exercises may include:
- Tai Chi
- Aerobic dance
- Aqua exercise
- Strength and resistance training
Regardless of the type of exercise you prefer, the most important part is how you approach that exercise and the joy that you bring to it. With your clinician’s permission, you may want to try out different types of physical activities to see which ones you enjoy most. Try to focus on the idea of playfulness in movement (though that can be difficult). Remind yourself that there was once a child who resided in your body that perhaps played and danced purely spontaneously and for fun, and that movement was in no way connected to food and eating
Tips for Engaging in Mindful Exercise
Physical activity during eating disorder recovery is not simply about the movement itself; rather, it is about how you approach your exercise—from a place of self-compassion, self-care, and radical acceptance of your body and your reality. Exercising in a mindful manner may not come naturally at first, but that’s okay. It’s an ongoing process of learning awareness, understanding the mind-body connection, building appreciation, and establishing gratitude—all while unlearning unhealthy patterns of compulsion and mindless movement.
Here are some tips for engaging in mindful exercise:
- Recognize when you need to rest and recover
- Listen to your body
- Hydrate yourself before, during, and after exercise
- Cultivate gratitude for your body’s ability to move
- Foster a flexible relationship with exercise, in which you are able to skip a workout or take several days off
- Find a community or support network of people in eating disorder recovery who prioritize mindful movement over outcome-focused movement
- Understand that what works for one person may not be right for you
- The ability to eat without compensating by movement is crucial to long term recovery from an eating disorder, you may need time to expose yourself to this situation to “teach” your mind that nothing catastrophic happens when you eat and do not compensate by movement or any other mechanism.
Remember, lasting changes don’t occur overnight. It’s going to take time to rectify the unhealthy thoughts, feelings, and behaviors associated with exercise, so be patient and make sure to celebrate the small victories you achieve along the way.
Benefits of Exercise
Exercise is a known risk factor for eating disorder relapse, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that individuals must abstain from all movement during recovery. (3)
Healthy, joyful exercise can have plenty of benefits for those recovering from an eating disorder, such as:4
- Reducing depression and anxiety
- Improving self-esteem
- Relieving stress
- Improving cognitive functioning
- Reducing social withdrawal
- Improving sleep
- Increasing stamina, energy, and mental alertness
- Increasing interest in sex
- Improving cardiovascular issues
Additionally, physical activities that involve a group, such as community gardening, walking groups, dance, and leisure sports, all can enhance social connection. This social connection may be extremely beneficial for individuals in eating disorder recovery, because it allows them to focus on the group, rather than on themself.
When Does Exercise Become a Problem?
It is common for eating disorders and dysfunctional or excessive exercise to co-occur. And for individuals who previously struggled with excessive exercise, it’s essential that, with the help of a treatment professional, they learn to reframe exercise as a healthful and happy activity.
If you are in recovery from an eating disorder and have begun an exercise routine, as directed by your clinician, you will want to check in with yourself to make sure that your movement hasn’t become compulsive or excessive. Here are some signs to look out for: (1)
- Exercising as a compensatory behavior, such as after eating or binging
- Exercising to lose weight or fat
- Experiencing a preoccupation with exercising
- Exercising despite safety being compromised
- Keeping a rigid exercise routine
- Exercising as a form of self-harm
- Exercising to regulate mood or affect
- Feeling ashamed or guilty for skipping a workout
- Feeling unable to take rest days
- Forfeiting social experiences due to intense fear of not exercising
- Overlooking medical advice to rest vs exercise
- Loss of menstrual cycle related to lack of nourishment and excessive exercise, but continued exercise
Always be honest with your treatment provider. If you’re struggling with compulsive exercise or are worried that you are exercising for reasons other than joy, express your concerns to your therapist so they can adjust your recovery plan. Eating disorder recovery is not typically a linear process, and it’s okay to take a step back to re-evaluate what’s working and what isn’t working. Reach out to the Within Health team today to learn about how we incorporate healthy movement into eating disorder recovery.
- Hockin-Boyers, H., & Warin, M. (2021). Women, Exercise, and Eating Disorder Recovery: The Normal and the Pathological. Qualitative Health Research, 31(6), 1029–1042.
- Calogero, R.M., & Pedtrotty-Stump, K.N. (2010). Chapter 25: Incorporating Exercise into Eating Disorder Treatment and Recovery: Cultivating a Mindful Approach, Treatment of Eating Disorders (pp 425-441). Academic Press.
- Goodwin, Huw (2019). Risk factors for compulsive exercise. Loughborough University.
- Sharma, A., Madaan, V., & Petty, F. D. (2006). Exercise for mental health. Primary care companion to the Journal of clinical psychiatry, 8(2), 106.