Topic Tuesday: Exercise
“When Exercise Does More Harm Than Good” (By: Emily Grinstead)
When you think of the word “exercise”, what comes to mind? A walk around the block with your dog, a healing yoga class, a dance party with your roommates? Or do you think more along the lines of … a grueling workout at the gym, comparing yourself to that girl on the treadmill, forcing yourself to move in a way that you actually really hate?
Growing up, I never thought much about how active I was. I mean, do you know many kids who are conscious of how much exercise they’re getting? Just like we are born intuitive eaters, we are also born with an intuition about how to move our bodies appropriately throughout our lives. As children, this often looks like playing outside with friends and family, riding bikes around the neighborhood, or trying out different sports. I was a naturally active child, but my movement was not “typical” for a kid. While I tried every sport you can name, I failed miserably at all of them, and it even took me until I was ten years old before I learned how to ride a bike. Leaving the soccer balls, basketballs, and volleyballs behind (balls are terrifying), I naturally sought after the things that brought me joy: dance, hikes with my family, and even that bike turned out to be kinda fun 😉 I was also naturally high-energy: always talking a million miles an hour and coming up with new ideas–plays, books, drawings, you name it–to keep me busy.
It wasn’t until the second half of 8th grade that I began to question how I moved my body. As my body naturally gained weight in preparation for puberty, I became more and more aware of how my body looked and how it was changing. And I didn’t like what I saw. Having always been the “small one” growing up, I was beginning to lose that piece of my identity, and that realization was nothing but terrifying. A few months down the road, those intrusive thoughts turned into behaviors, and those behaviors turned into habits. I began working out (something I had never done before) to “get ready for summer” and “look good for high school”. I started counting calories, running regularly, and monitoring my weight as everything–my health, my personality, my sanity–slowly spiraled downward.
Fast-forward a couple of years, and you’ll meet “healthy Emily”, a self-proclaimed expert on all things health and fitness. More like an expert on all things orthorexic. Steeped deep in a disorder that was my normal at the time, I went through more exercise phases than I can count: hot yoga, long-distance running, weight lifting, HIIT workouts… you name it, I probably did it. And that deeply rooted love of dance? Still there, but unfortunately twisted up in the disorder as well. While high school dance truly was my safe haven from the craziness going on inside my brain, it transformed from an innocent passion into just another arena where my eating disorder could ridicule me. I was never good enough, never thin enough, never talented enough.
And so I shrank.
As my eating disorder continued to take its toll on my mind and body, I grew even further away from my intuition around exercise. Carefree little Emily who loved to play outside was gone, and her replacement was a girl who made endless workout plans, lived for OrangeTheory Fitness, and thought it was totally cool and normal to start training for a half marathon after nearly collapsing from malnutrition a few weeks prior.
The disordered exercise saga continued, and it wasn’t until the summer after my freshman year of college that I learned just how much damage my supposed “healthy lifestyle” had done. My heart had lost significant muscle mass and was beating slowly to conserve energy; I had osteopenia from lack of circulating estrogen (turns out that body fat we’re taught to hate exists for a reason…). This medical wake-up call was enough to scare me into agreeing to stop my rigid exercise routine, but as soon as I was weight restored for the first time, I jumped right back into those intense workouts. And the medical consequences–along with an extremely anxious, compulsive need to exercise–re-emerged. Funny how that happens when you don’t listen to your treatment team…
After months of this quasi-recovery thing I was doing, last April, my doctor told me that I had to give up exercise cold-turkey if I wanted to get better. And so I did. Seriously. I don’t know what enabled me to do that other than the sheer grace of God, but I think I was so fed up with how exercise was controlling my life (and despite my eating disorder’s hatred of all things treatment, I happen to trust my doctor a lot).
And now? I haven’t formally exercised since that appointment. It’s been 10 months now, almost a year. And what do I do instead, you may ask? I SLEEP, I nourish my body, I read, I write, I spend time with friends and family, I relax, I study, I live a life no longer dominated by exercise. And honestly, I’ve never thought less often about exercise in a long, long time. Of course, completely abstaining from any form of exercise is not the plan long-term because intuitive, joyful movement is a normal part of a healthy lifestyle. But right now, it’s the absolute best thing for me and my health, and I’m so incredibly grateful for this season of rest and renewal.
Of course, stopping all exercise was by no means easy, and the temptation to exercise was so strong those first few months without it. But over time, the more I chose my health and long-term well-being over the short-term urge to workout, the easier it got. So for anyone who is in recovery from an eating disorder and has been told they need to stop exercising; for anyone who has an unhealthy relationship with exercise; for anyone who feels compulsive around exercise and just plain sick of doing stuff that doesn’t feel good, I encourage you to take the time to look at your relationship with movement and ask yourself: Am I allowed to exercise (i.e., am I physically, mentally, and emotionally well enough to exercise)? Does this type of movement make me truly feel good? Am I doing this because I want to or because I feel like I have to? We’re all in different places and on our own journeys with exercise, and I am a far cry away from someone who knows what it’s like to have a normal relationship with her body, but I do know what has and what hasn’t worked for me. And while I can’t predict what my relationship with exercise will look like in the future once I’m able to move how I want to again, I can offer you this:
Letting go of fitness trackers has been absolutely HUGE for my relationship with movement and my body. It’s such an empowering act to remove an item that may be keeping you chained to a disordered relationship with your body. (Note: I understand that this is not the case for everyone; however, the correlation is present and strong). Your health is not contingent on how many steps you get, how many calories you burned during your workout, or how much or what you ate today. Health is so much more complex than these misleading (and often highly inaccurate) measures. Your body does not need to be micromanaged by a piece of plastic and metal; we deserve so much more than that. If any of this resonates with you, I encourage you to take a deep breath and take the damn thing off.
While I don’t yet know exactly what a healthy relationship with exercise looks like for me, I most certainly know what it should never, ever look like again:
-rigid and overly scheduled
-as a way to “numb out” from life
-as a way to control the size of my body
-as a way to “tone up” or “fix” a certain body part
-as a way to make myself feel worthy of wearing a certain item of clothing (i.e., bikini, shorts, dresses, etc.)
-as a way to “make up for” or “burn off” or “create a deficit” for something I’ve eaten or plan to eat in the future
Moving our bodies should never be rigid, stressful, or anxiety-provoking. Moving our bodies should be a joyful celebration of all that they are able to do. Unfortunately, the diet industry thrives on selling us the idea that if we just have enough willpower, eliminate xyz food group, start this new exercise routine, buy this new product, we’ll finally be thin enough, worthy enough, happy enough. And those messages are literally everywhere. But we have to ignore the crap in order to have a truly healthy relationship with exercise. Because being stuck in a disordered relationship with exercise only puts us further and further away from living a fulfilling life.
About the Author
Emily is a junior at Vanderbilt University majoring in Medicine, Health and Society. She loves Jesus, journaling, brunch foods, and all things Christmas and Disney. Houston, TX is her proud home, but she is slowly becoming a converted Nashvillian. She hopes to become both a Nurse Practitioner and a Registered Dietitian so that she can use her own experiences with anorexia and orthorexia to treat patients with eating disorders.