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Returning to Movement After an Eating Disorder

This week is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. Movement can be a complicated part of an eating disorder, and can also be a complicated part of recovery. Often, during an active eating disorder, people use movement as a compensatory behavior. This means that they use movement to make up for what they have eaten. Side note: if you’ve been using movement as a way to make up for what you’ve been eating, this does not automatically mean you have a diagnosable eating disorder, but it might be something you want to have a good long think about. This can be a warning sign, and is worthy of attention.

Returning to Movement in Recovery

If you’re in ED recovery, work closely with your eating disorder treatment team to plan a return to intentional movement. Your team typically includes professionals such as therapists, registered dietitians, and medical doctors who can provide personalized guidance based on your specific needs and recovery progress. Make sure that you’re tuned in to your intention in movement. If the intent is to change the appearance of your body, it may not be great for your recovery.

A lot of folks with an active eating disorder favor cardio for its ability to burn a lot of calories. Thus, strength training can be attractive as a way to move your body that is less triggering to eating disorder thoughts. That being said, any form of movement can lead to obsession about appearance, metrics, or physique. Approach any form of movement with care and guidance, especially in the context of recovery. While strength training may seem less triggering than other forms of movement, it still carries potential pitfalls for individuals in eating disorder recovery. Pay close attention to how you’re feeling about your body and your return to movement as you progress. This requires honesty with yourself and ongoing communication with your treatment team.

Use Your Entire Team

If you’re working with a fitness coach or trainer, it’s advisable to involve your eating disorder treatment provider in the process. This collaboration ensures that your fitness goals align with your recovery journey and that your exercise regimen supports your overall well-being. As a coach, I’ve collaborated with my client’s ED treatment providers before, and it’s helpful for us both to have each other’s contact to be alert for any warning signs. 

For some people, numerical goals can be triggering, whether they’re related to reps, weight on a bar, or any other metric. If you find this is challenging for you, there might still be ways that you can phase in a return to intentional movement. I’ve worked with folks where we didn’t count reps but instead moved for a certain amount of time. Talk to your coach about what you find triggering and let them get creative.

Look for a Coach Working Within Their Scope of Practice

Be wary of any fitness coach who offers meal plans for people recovering from eating disorders. Meal planning for individuals in eating disorder recovery requires specialized training and expertise, typically provided by registered dietitians with experience in treating eating disorders. A fitness coach may not have the appropriate qualifications to address the complex nutritional needs of someone in recovery. Remember, just because a person has recovered from an eating disorder themself does not necessarily mean they can provide appropriate treatment advice to you.

When is the Right Time?

When it comes to reintegrating movement into eating disorder recovery, there are various approaches, each supported by some evidence. Some research suggests that people can resume intentional movement early in recovery, other studies advocate for a more cautious approach. Ultimately, follow the specific clinical guidance of your treatment team, as they are best equipped to tailor recommendations to your individual circumstances and progress.

While strength training may offer a less triggering option for movement in eating disorder recovery, it’s crucial to approach it mindfully and with the guidance of your treatment team. Prioritizing your overall well-being and recovery journey should always come first. If returning to movement is bad for your mental health, then it is bad for your health.

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