How I Healed my Relationship with Exercise
I love to workout. Honestly, I never thought I could say that. Wait, let me rephrase; I never thought I could say that and actually mean it. For years, I struggled with exercise addiction as it played a large role in my eating disorder journey. But as with several other aspects of my ED that nearly killed me, I am so happy to say I have now healed my relationship with exercise! In this post, I share my personal story with overexercising and how I learned to embrace joyful movement.
When I returned home after 6 months of eating disorder treatment in 2017, that's when I swore I would never do a home workout ever again. For years, I forced myself to exercise, no matter how much I dreaded it. I would wake up every single morning obsessing over all the squats and push-ups I would make myself do; hell, I would be doing said squats and pushups and already be dreading the next day's exercises! But what was more anxiety-provoking than the exercising itself, was the hyper-awareness around how, where, and when I would be doing these workouts, as they had to always be done in secret. Why? Because I wasn't actually allowed to exercise.
I remember my heart being broken when I was told I wasn't allowed to try out for the varsity soccer team in my freshman year of high school. I wasn't gaining the weight the doctors wanted me to, which meant no exercise whatsoever. My entire life at the time revolved around my sport, as this was the one moment I wouldn't think about food or obsesses over anything that had to do with my ED. When I was on the field, I never even thought about burning calories or how much I'd have to run during a scrimmage 'to make up for' the food I had eaten before. When I was on the field, I felt free for a moment, so focused on the game that it seemed like every uncertainty drifted away. Of course, I could do a really good job of putting myself down if I gave a poor pass or missed a goal shot, but nothing that, as far as I knew, my teammates didn't experience either.
This freedom, my social life, my moment to feel free, and do what I love, this all disappeared the moment an 'exercise restriction' was placed on me. I had just come out of the hospital for a low heart rate due to malnutrition several weeks ago, and the only thing I was allowed to do was rest and eat. I was 12 years old, so my parents, of course, supported every medical decision and went to great lengths to make sure I wouldn't and couldn't work out. I was so furious, and that clear definition of parental hierarchy, along with the monitored eating and Maudsley Approach which was implemented by my medical team, was merely the beginning of a downward spiral of rivalry: my parents + medical team vs. Livia.
Looking back, I now understand that it would be silly (and honestly quite dangerous) to have let me exercise when I wasn't eating enough and literally almost died weeks ago. But the extent to which this exercise restriction lasted--until we moved to the Netherlands in 2015, is what really sparked my need for movement.
Shh, I'm doing yoga in my room
At first, all I felt was anger. Anger towards everyone and everything for not understanding me, for not listening to me, for not supporting me. Yes, I was mentally very sick and 'nutso' for not 'just eating' or 'being normal', but I was also 12 years old...I was still a kid, a girl trying to find her way and 'fit in' with the rest of the crowd, and taking away my social life only gave my ED more room to try and control everything that was currently out of my control.
So I put on my big girl shoes and whispered to myself 'Okay, I'm not allowed to exercise? Well, I'll show you ALL that there's no way in hell you can make me, ha!' And ever since that day, I decided I would exercise until my legs couldn't take it no more, my arms were shaking... just as long until my 'rivals' (medical team + parents) would let me workout again.
I so vividly remember waking up every morning, doing pushups until failure, taking a break, then continuing until my face was so red I would come down for the breakfast that had been prepared for me (I also wasn't allowed in the kitchen while my parents prepared my food. This was stated in the Maudsley Method). I always told them I had taken a way too hot shower which caused my flushing, but I'm pretty sure they knew, too, that was far from the truth!
The whole day at school, I was consumed by ED thoughts: half by food, the other half by how I was going to fit in my exercise. When I came home, I ran straight to my room, shut the door, got out my red yoga mat, and did as many jumping squats and lunges and crunches and God knows what else until my dad would come knocking on my door for my afternoon snack.
In the middle of a 'set', I would scramble up into cobra or downward dog pose, trying to disguise my out-of-breathness under my shirt, only opening my mouth to say 'i'm coming!' so that he would leave ASAP and I could gasp for air. But again, he knew. My sisters knew. I even knew that they knew. But I wasn't going to let them stop me and they knew that too.
Exercising gave me a sense of control over everything I felt I didn't have. It gave me a rush, a high, it was my outlet that numbed all the anger and sadness I truly felt deep down inside. But it also quickly became my worst enemy, a sauntering voice luring above my head, every second whispering "move move move!".
During this time, I was also in and out of treatment. I wasn't gaining weight still, even though I was "eating my meal plan". Only I knew that I really wasn't...perhaps TMI, but I would stuff sandwiches in my pants when my parents looked up for a split second, I would wrap oatmeal in paper towels and toss it, I would hold food in my mouth and spit it out as soon as the meal was over. Like I said, everything was revolved around not eating, and compensating what I did.
I was losing weight despite all the medical team's efforts, increased meal plans, and parent surveillance. But with my determination and will (or rather the parasitism that my ED took over these qualities), there was truly nothing that could stop me.
Even treatment couldn't stop me. After months and months of "trying" to get me on the right track at home and making nul progress, my doctor decided it was time for me to go to treatment. For about 3 years, I was in and out of partial, residential, PHP, IOP, hospital, residential...and all this time, I was still exercising.
I would grasp every chance I could: I would do pushups in the shower, hollow plank holds in bed, jumping lunges in the bathroom. But this behavior is the exact thing that led me to bounce back and forth between treatment. At the end of each of my stays, I was told that my lack of progress meant they could not help me. So I was sent elsewhere and elsewhere, hearing the same news every time.
It was only until I had gone through four months of HELL during treatment in the Netherlands that my heart truly broke: you're just going to have to accept the fact that you're NEVER going to get better...yes, those were quite literally the exact words of the head psychiatrist at Rintveld.
But the only reason I was told this, was because the clinic itself had failed. They had failed at helping me in any way whatsoever. But from their approach I am not surprised...not surprised that my exercise addiction just THRIVED there, not surprised that over half the girls I was there with are now no longer with us...I have said this in other posts about Rintveld, but I cannot even believe they dare call themselves an eating disorder clinic. There was literally ZERO support. I'm talking ZERO. We were free to do whatever we wanted all day, while the nurses would just chat in their little office and only come out when it was time for a meal or snack.
It was during my stay at Rintveld that I took on running, as I would sneak out every day at some point to run in the neighboring woods. At the same time, I was manipulating my weight and hiding food more than ever before, so of course, my situation only got worse. While it may seem that I was 'happy' because my eating disorder was on cloud nine, I was absolutely miserable. Deep down, I truly wanted to get better. I wanted to stop exercising and I wanted to nourish myself back to health, but the lack of support just gave my eating disorder (and thus my exercise addiction) too much room. If I had the opportunity to exercise, I absolutely NEEDED to. It wasn't even a choice at that point anymore.
After four months, I was sent home with the message that there was no hope for me. This discouraging message led me into the deepest downward spiral and from that moment on, my exercise addiction was greater than it ever was.
I would force myself to run every single day. I was exhausted, and hurting everywhere. When I look back at what I was eating during this time, I'm not even shocked; I still ate moderate amounts of food, even more than some 'healthy' people eat! But it was farrrr from enough for a girl that was on the edge of dying.
This energy deficit resulted in daily panic attacks which simply drained more energy. During my panic attacks I would experience heightened exercise urges, which is not surprising considering panic and exercise are both part of the same biological 'fight or flight' response. I am saving the biology behind exercise urges for an upcoming post, but you get the point for now :) I would bike several towns over, run around the block crying, almost blackmailing my parents that I would never come back if they didn't chase after me. My exercise addiction didn't just affect me; it affected everyone around me and ESPECIALLY the ones I love.
It was in these moments--the moments I saw how my illness was breaking my family apart--that I realized it had to get help. I really did want to get better, but my ED was too strong for me to fight this fight alone. That's when we arranged for me to go to Carolina House, where I spent 6 long months mending myself back to health. I did nothing but REST these entire 6 months, which was literally the biggest breath of fresh air in YEARS. As I said, I really wanted to stop exercising, but my eating disorder left me no choice...it was only until I had the support of CH and my non-negotiable commitment to FULL recovery, that I could finally let go of everything that was keeping me sick.
Now the Real Work Begins
I've gotta be honest, coming home after (almost) 24/7 support was one of the hardest transitions I've ever made. I suddenly had no accountability, meaning I could go right back to all the old behaviors and strict workout routines and everything I had given up during my time in treatment. But I had NOT just wasted 6 months of fighting my hardest fight to just go straight back to square one. I chose this path for a reason, and was going to keep walking the path of recovery until I achieved what I had set out to do: set myself free.
It was then, that I realized I now had ALL the accountability. Yes there was no staff or other patients to check on me or to keep me accountable for my actions, but I no longer needed that; I was at a place where I could take on my own responsibility of accountability. Being in this new mindset, I made the conscious choice to continue resting. I still dreaded the thought of exercise after all those years and was okay with not doing it. Now, I'm not saying my eating disorder was okay with it, but I was okay with it. And that's all that mattered. I was no longer going to let my illness control me.
I continued to rest and eat, but most of all trust that I could one day find joy in exercising again. I was frustrated and honestly, confused in the beginning. I'm at a healthy weight!!! Why do I still dread movement so much??? Ummm MAYBE because you forced yourself to workout for 5+ years!? Yeah, 5 years of damage doesn't take 6 months to reverse! So I waited...
Incorporating Movement back into my Life
My first real form of movement started out as slow walks with my mom. I hadn't seen her for months so we had some catching up and bonding to do! I also started at a new school in the beginning of 2018, which was a 25 minute bike ride away. I continued to see my dad (my parents had just split up) and we would make beautiful long bike rides during the warm summer weather of 2018.
When I no longer associated exercise with control and no longer felt I needed to do it to prove myself, I slowly started picking up running again. This definitely came with trial and error as I had some pretty nasty shin splints the first couple weeks, which led me to take a long break from running again. But because I was no longer controlled by my addiction, I was okay with this. I let it go.
Then in September of 2018 I joined my FIRST GYM EVER. I had never been to a gym before, but after years of feeling weak and exhausted and now finally feeling as MYSELF again, I wanted to also feel STRONG. Strong in my own skin and to also build confidence in myself.
A New Passion
I spent several weeks finding a gym at which I felt comfortable. I learned that all the 'big chains' with 30 treadmills lined up and bodybuilding men in the corner wasn't really my 'jam', thank God free trials for that haha! Then I discovered a local gym quite close to my house and fell in love: De Workout. The staff was so kind, so welcoming, and they did everything they could to make me feel comfortable! I got to try a free group fitness class (BodyPump) and also got a free session with a personal trainer. I signed the papers, bought myself some new workout clothes, and I was ready to make some GAINZ baby!
My first couple weeks in the gym were definitely trial and error; I didn't really know what the heck I was doing and I'm sure I was doing the moves all wrong, haha! My main gym inspiration at the time was fitness instagram accounts, but this honestly led me to a lot of comparison at the beginning of my fitness journey.
There were girls with six-pack abs that claimed to train 6 days a week, and that made me feel weak and bad about myself. I had just spent the last year doing absolutely NOTHING and didn't even know what on earth a deadlift or seated cable row was at that point. In an effort to be like them, I forced myself to go to the gym several days a week and follow training programs that just left me feeling drained after every session. I got caught up in trying to be someone else, forgetting about where I had come from and that I really just needed to give myself grace.
I decided I wasn't going to throw my own, lonely pity party anymore. I was done being ashamed of my body and current level of fitness, and I was going to really step out of my comfort zone. A good friend of mine (hello Britt!) recommended I try group classes, as this was a totally different experience than working out on your own and trying to find your way in the gym. To be honest, I was in opposition to doing any kind of classes after the first BodyPump class I did, because it wasn't 'tough' enough and I wouldn't be pushing myself hard enough. But that's again where I caught myself and said that exercise is a celebration of movement, not a punishment! You don't need to always push yourself, especially if it's your first time and you're just learning what works for you! Besides, it was my FIRST class, so they often recommend you start very light to prevent injury.
So I tried BodyPump again, and it's now one of my favorite workout classes ever! I even bought a Bodypump bar during this whole quarantine thing so I could continue pumping :) Alongside BodyPump my other favorite workout class that my gym offers is BodyAttack! It's a cardio-intensive class whereas BodyPump is very strength-focused. I love this combination because it provides me with different exercise styles, variation, and De Workout trainers just make the class so fun!
And then Quarantine Happened...
I was absolutely devastated when the government announced that the gyms needed to close. I had become so in love with my weekly workout routine and sense of community at De Workout, that I really felt at a loss. But it wasn't even the gym itself that created the most emotion for me when I heard the news...it was the idea that I would be confronted with working out from home again, that scared me the most.
And just to be clear, YOU DO NOT HAVE TO WORK OUT FROM HOME during this quarantine if you absolutely do not want to. It's a very tough time for everyone, and we all have our own ways of coping with shock. It can be super easy to feel like you 'need to keep up your fitness' or 'stay fit during quarantine' with all the buzz on social media, but you are not anyone else and should not be doing anything YOU personally don't want to do. It's your life, and no one can tell you how to live it!
So why did I feel fear about working out from home? Because it immediately projected me back into my darkest days where my room (and every private place for that matter) felt like a black hole that my eating disorder sucked me into. I was so afraid of being reminded of the exercise trauma my addiction had caused me, that I felt shivers and anxiety just at the thought.
But that's also when I realized, in a sense, that exercise trauma was still controlling me. The only reason I couldn't joyfully workout from home was that I believed that to be true. Our beliefs become our reality, so as long as I believed that I couldn't work out from home, I couldn't work out from home!
Throughout my recovery journey, I've challenged many limiting beliefs my eating disorder had created for me. And if I could overcome those, I could overcome this too! I asked several of you in an Instagram story what your favorite youtubers/at home workouts were, and was so positively overwhelmed with all the suggestions! I ordered a BodyPump bar and bought a membership to continue my favorite workout classes from home, and that first quarantine workout, I had healed. I put all my history aside for a moment, focused on how much I now love to workout and expressed pure gratitude for being able to move my body out of a place of love instead of fear. Of course, working out from home isn't the same as working out in a gym or in the hyped-up community of a group class, but it's movement and it's meaningful.
So in a way, I am grateful for quarantine. It allowed me to heal the last bits of my exercise addiction and was just another confirmation that I can do anything. And if I can do it, you can too!