“If I Eat That, I’ll Have To Work Out”: Exercise With An Eating Disorder

Oh, Exercise. The ultimate double-edged sword of an eating disorder.



People ask me every so often “What was the hardest part of rehab?”

Depending on my mood, the answer varies.

“The food, the confinement, the emotion overload, the disparity of sick people… the exercise.”

Ah, the exercise, I always land on – or lack thereof.

3 years ago, I was escorted into rehab (yes, escorted. Two people at each side in the case that I bolted… and ran to the highway? I don’t know where the hell they expected me to go.)

Anyway, I remember looking around the vast expanse of my prison-like surroundings, and spotting what looked like a runner’s path.

Circular, brown dirted and perfectly suited to run on during what I assumed would be many hard days ahead, I was relieved to see this silver lining.

“YOU CAN TAKE MY BODY, BUT YOU CAN NEVER TAKE MY FREEDOM (TO EXERCISE)” – the William Wallace inside of me screamed. (Side note: Braveheart, oddly enough, happened to be a fan favorite to watch while in rehab. We were banned from all trash television, as well as any movie baring nudity of any sort – but yet, somehow, Braveheart slipped the radar.)

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As it goes.

I saw that running track, and relief filled me: “This whole rehab thing isn’t gonna be so bad,” I thought. “Just a place for me to get healthy and fit ((and thin)) at the same time!”

…. Oh, little Lindsey – I laugh now. You fool.

No exercise, I was told on that first day. Exercise is something you gain overtime while you’re here in a monitored fashion.

Are you shitting me? I said out loud. I’m gonna get a blood clot from sitting all the time.

My foot was shaking. I remember this because I was later told to stop shaking my leg for fear I was trying to ‘burn calories’ in my seat.

You won’t be sitting all the time, they said. We do light stretches every morning.

Light stretches, I repeated sarcastically.

Yes, yoga-like stretching, they said – smiling, as though they were handing me a golden nugget.

Rolling my eyes, I protested. Alright, reason with me guys, I said. I have an eating disorder. I’m perfectly aware that I’m sick and fucked up.

A therapist shielded a smile.

But, I’ve gotta learn how to exercise with this shit. Exercise is a huge part of my life.

We’re aware, one said, rather snarkily – my chart in hand. You work out up to three times a day – am I right?

Sometimes, I shot back. Not always.

There was a pause.

Look, I said. I can’t just quit working out. Regardless of all this rehabbing, when I get better and more ‘normal’ I’ll still wanna do it. I’ve been exercising since I was 11.

We have to strip you of your negative habits, they explained. And then we’ll build them back as you progress.

Logical, I thought begrudgingly. But still bullshit. I pestered a bit more, but ultimately I knew I wasn’t going to win the war – and I chose instead to look at it like an experiment.

Fine, I thought as they showed me to my prison cell. I’ll stop working out, lose all the beautiful validations of muscles in my leg, and it’ll be a test of my will power when I’m out to build it all back up.

… If I had to take a guess,  I’d imagine 90% of patients agree to eating disorder treatment under the secret pretense that if they gain too much weight, they’ll look at it like a game and figure out how to lose it afterwards … which guaranteed working out.

Exercise has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. At 11, I was bullied pretty terribly one summer and a doctor recommended I run.

I come from a long line of worker outers. Both parents work out. My brother broke school records in running. It’s a lifestyle in my family and the culture I grew up in.

When I first began to run that summer at age 11, I hated it. In fact, it was not a love affair that started from the beginning – but something I did to appease the doctor and my parents. I’d run till I was out of view of my parents house and walk the rest of the time – headphones in my ears, some angsty Eve 6 soundtrack.

I played tennis; that was my original exercise. Running was boring. I was ‘bad’ at it and I hated being bad at anything – so I didn’t try.

The whole concept of exercise was not something I took seriously until high school. I worked out playing tennis but I didn’t care about the work out – more the sport. And being perfect, of course.

I ONLY began to take it seriously when I started realizing what calories were – and when my adolescent body changed one year into a more ‘normal’ size – and then I used it solely to burn calories, and feel better about eating.

I never developed a healthy relationship with working out, which leads me to ask: What the fuck is a healthy exercise routine? 3 years into recovery, I am still trying to decipher that.

I seem to constantly go back and forth between working out for pleasure and endorphins – to working out because I ate pizza and “have to burn it off.”

Even when I don’t run on a treadmill, I still always have a vague idea of how long and how many calories I burned running outside.

I don’t wear Fitbits nor track steps. I don’t need to – I’d just find a reason or a way to rely on it to support my ED.

But, how do you grapple with something that is intrinsically ingrained into your life – but not always in a positive way?

P.S. Rehab bullshitted ultimately. They don’t teach you how to work out healthy – they just had me quit working out and then on the last week there, I did like 3 Yoga classes and that was ”rehabilitation.”

The day I was out of in-patient rehab, I ran 6 miles outside, didn’t stretch, and strained a muscle.

I had to deal with it later in out-patient therapy, but the urge to overexercise was only vaguely addressed throughout my months of rehab.

It’s never left me completely. It’s evolved – sure – but it hasn’t disappeared. I don’t prioritize working out extensively anymore – I don’t force myself to make the time to do it in order to give up other events in my life.

I don’t base my self-worth on it.

Is that recovery? I don’t know.

At my sickest, I ran a lot. I’ll leave it at that. I had a lot of ED ways to manipulate it. I always had to put in how much I weighed and would subtract 10lbs from that so that I was more assured the calorie counter was accurate.

I ran in all sorts of ways to burn more calories – intervals and spurts of sprints. I ran for a mile here – a mile there – I ran all throughout a day compulsively and then on a treadmill for extensive amounts. I truly prioritized running above anything else.

I ran to cope with stress = good. I ran to burn more calories than I ate = bad.

I ran to get a high = good? I ran to feel okay about myself = bad.

I ran to be ‘the best’ at something = good and bad.

How the hell do you manage all the intentions? It’s a muddled road.

I always think my intentions are good, and then somehow – the more I work out – the more I want it. I want more. I want faster tone. I want to stay longer.

Inevitably, I go through this process where I acknowledge that I’m being psycho and then I take a break to recover from my own bullshit, lose the desire, and take off a month or so of working out at all. A fun little see-saw.

I am reluctant and incredibly stubborn about trying new exercise regimes. I’ll do a Yoga class every now and then, but it doesn’t bring me the same satisfaction as a run. I’ll do a strength training class and feel terrible at it and I don’t want to do it again.

I am SO stuck in my ways – almost more than with the actual eating part of an eating disorder. If I only have 45 minutes to exercise – I choose cardio. There’s some subconscious tick that’s like ”oh you can pack in more calories in a 45 minute run than lifting weights where you have to take breaks.”

Totally illogical, I know.

Frankly, I also don’t own a television so cardio is the time I catch up on my TLC’s My 600lb life fetish (eating disorder related? I’m sure), Rachel Maddow (when she’s not moaning on about for 30 minutes about Trump’s tax returns she didn’t really have), 20/20, Shark Tank (when it’s actually an interesting product), or Friends.

In my world, there’s always a reason/excuse to choose the cardio over strength training.

It’s what I know, and eating disorders thrive on regimes.

I had a bit of luck this past weekend, however. I went bouldering in a rock climbing gym with my partner and his friends. He basically had to drag me kicking and screaming, BUT once we got there – I loved it. Very invigorating and hard and challenging and I was both good and terrible at it (Heights are hard for me so I had to get over that part.)

I’m definitely evolving with exercise. I rarely feel guilty when I miss a work out anymore, but I am always cognizant of the fact that I feel tied to cardio like Stockholm Syndrome.

I want to break free of that regime and that conviction that without at least 45 minutes of cardio – your work out isn’t ‘real.’

I’d love to work on my core. I have a bad back (2 years in a brace, baby) and I have a family history of osteoporosis.

I know I’ve gotta make changes. My knees hurt more often from the runs than I care to admit, and I’m never really going to feel satisfied in recovery knowing that I still abide by some of those ED rules and regulations.

Maybe I’ve still gotta find my “thing” ya know? Maybe I just need to put myself out there and try some difference classes to see what invigorates me to get me going back more than 2-3x and then reverting to my “known.”

I can make excuses all I want, but ultimately it’s my choice to break this barrier. I just haven’t wanted to yet.

I told my partner that I’d like to go climb again on Saturday. Who knows? Maybe I’ll be the next Ashima Shiraishi and scale every wall I come to.

But, for now, I’ll stick to the attainable goals.

And all I can do is confront the issue – accept that ED will always play a part of my life – look for something new – and continue working through all the kinks of recovery.

Just cause I’ve got some ashes doesn’t mean I didn’t put out the fire. <3

6 thoughts on ““If I Eat That, I’ll Have To Work Out”: Exercise With An Eating Disorder

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  5. Yeah I feel like I can really relate with the whole ‘exercising doesn’t count unless it includes cardio’ thing. If I had to guess I’d blame the good ‘ol media for putting that in my head because although my mum’s been fit all her life she’s never put an emphasis on cardio at all, she always did things like dancing, karate and aerobics for exercising and that’s completely different. For me I’m currently trying to change my workouts away from cardio, doing whatever I feel like doing at the time. For example I’ve really enjoyed boxing when I’ve done it in the past, I find kickboxing to be pretty damn empowering as well! 🙂

    Julia // The Sunday Mode

  6. E – I'm a writer, artist, speaker and trainer recovering from an acute episode of life that started in the projects. I was born in Providence. Aren't we all?

    You’re hilarious and adorable. I didn’t go to rehab because my family was poor but I did go to my fair of shrinks and docs. I’ll say my first nutritionist whose name I will never forget was honest, trustworthy and fair with me. We had a deal which involved my mum driving to me to the gym for cardio if I ate according to my food plan. To this day my eating success is based on my access to a gym. I can’t feel calm without a daily workout. It’s not perfect but every registered dietician I’ve worked with since my recovery lets me incorporate a healthy amount of cardio into my plan. I like being empowered to decide what kind of ‘house’ I live in seeing as how too much control was given away without my consent. Spending an obscene amount of time, pain and money on I.V iron infusions is my marker. Those treatments suck, plain and simple. The older I get the more awful it is. If I’m over-exercising and under eating I literally pay the price. Yes, I prefer to walk a fine line but that’s my truth. Recovery is worth it. You give many women lots of hope and I continue to wish you the absolute best. Eat the effing cake 😉

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