Once a month, local researchers and professionals in the local eating disorder community come together to discuss research articles related to our field. The goal is to help bridge the gap that exists between researchers and therapists. The discussions that occur, even those bunny trails we inevitably end up on, are invaluable. We met earlier this week to discuss an article on physical activity and, specifically, anorexia. Over the course of our time together, the following themes started to emerge from our discussion time. Eating disorder or not, the following points are good reminders as we work towards building a healthier relationship with food, weight, exercise and our body!
#1 - Our Culture Praises Runners
Currently, we live in a culture where running is 'popular'. It is the latest 'in' thing. There is this air of superiority that some runners feel over non-runners. As if they are more athletic or healthy because they run. How is one sport more superior than another? Perhaps, I'm a bit bias as my whole life, I've heard how the sport I love to play, is less superior than hockey. You like hockey? Great! I like Ringette... and guess what... we can co-exist without one being 'better' than the other. Don't like running... no problem! Pick an exercise you enjoy doing, and be healthy about it. .
It seems as though you can't just run these days... you also have to look the part, and buy all the 'right' type of clothing. Sure, there is a benefit (at times) of wearing certain types of gear... For example, a good pair of shoes is helpful in supporting your feet and wearing proper socks is helpful if you want to avoid blisters! I'm not against fashion, but if 'looking' the part is more important than having fun while running (or exercising in general), it might be a good idea to take a step back and bring this realization into therapy. It could be helpful to see a recreational therapist (with experience in eating disorders) as well.
#2 - Our Culture Doesn't Promote Listening to Your Body
On pintrest? Don't worry, I'm sure you've seen the many slogans that promote not listening to your body. Take the all too familiar, "no pain, no gain" slogan. Many people push themselves too far while exercise, which can lead to injury. Many people, also, return to exercise after injury too quickly, which can result in prolonged or greater severity of injury. Our bodies need rest, our bodies need fuel. We need to start trusting our body's cues and to know our limits.
#3 - Motivation is Crucial
Ask yourself, "why am I doing this exercise?" Is it for fun? Is it for health and wellness? Do I like it? I am enjoying it? If you have answered 'yes' to these questions, you're heading in the right direction for building a healthy relationship with exercise. If your motivation is to burn calories, to 'tone up', to lose weight or to rid feelings of guilt, someone else may be driver's seat and they definitely do not have your long-term health and wellness in mind.
Research has shown that exercise can be helpful for those struggling with depression and/or anxiety (two common issues in those who struggle with an eating disorder). It can't be the only skill used to combat these issues. The last thing you want is to break your leg and not have any other method of managing your emotions. It's like investing money... it's never a good idea to put all your money into one stock. If it crashes, you are at risk of losing more than the money you invested in.
#4 - We Forget that Exercise is Movement
When we think of 'exercise', people often think of going to the gym, or heading out for a run. It's important to remember that exercise is movement. It includes all forms of movements, such as: cleaning, sex, walking around on campus, playing the drums, chasing toddlers, travelling to and from the mode of transportation that gets you to work, vacuuming, mowing the lawn, gardening, playing frisbee, and so much more. Don't discount how you are using your body throughout the day!
#5 - Our Culture Encourages Tracking Data
From calorie counting, to how many footsteps you have taken in a day, our culture is obsessed with tracking data. For many individuals who struggle with exercise and eating issues, tracking data is often an area that needs to be challenged in order to get better. There is this thought that the more data you have, the better the work out is. Huh? How does tracking one's steps validate whether or not someone has had a 'good' day versus a 'not so good' day? They are just numbers, just like the numbers on the scale. It can't tell you whether or not you had fun, or listened to your body, or whether or not you fuelled your body in the healthy way.
Now, I know individuals who collect data around exercise, and it is simply that... data. It is when the meaning of this data changes into something that controls you, or that takes the pleasure out of exercising, when it becomes problematic. Exercise isn't always about beating your time or how many kilometres you travelled. There is so much more to see, taste, smell, hear and feel than simply our devices that inform us how far we have gone!
#6 - Isn't Exercise Supposed to Be Fun?
YES! It should be. We are likely going to continue doing the things we 'like' versus the things we don't like. Hate the gym? No problem! Hit up the trail by your house with a friend a few times a week. Not a fan of running? Try swimming, or rock climbing, or archery, or hiking, or scuba diving, or golf, or canoeing, or lawn bowling, etc.
There's this part of me that knows some of you will be reading this and thinking, "why Karen, you run... it's easy for you to say to others who don't run that it's okay, while you're out there doing what society praises". I'm an advocate of exercise WHEN it's done in a healthy, sustainable, enjoyable, non-ED driven, way. There's nothing wrong with running in and of itself. One individual may struggle with running, while the other struggles with walking. The point is to learn how to build a healthy relationship with exercise that is right for YOU and YOUR recovery. It's not about comparing or judges what people do. It's about looking at your motivation for why you are doing it, with the hopes of bringing it more and more in line with health and wellness. So, my question, why do you exercise?