Addicted to the Sweat
TRIGGER WARNING: Talk of excessive exercise and mention of exact numbers, mention of low weight.
The way our society talks about working out and going to the gym is in one vein: do it. Google "workout" and you'll see the seven best exercises for your most shredded abs yet! You'll see the best workout to blast fat. To lose weight. To cinch your waist. Essentially, to be less. To shrink. To exist in this world smaller than you currently are. Of course, this is helpful for anyone who is overweight or out of shape and wants to get healthier, but what about the 70 million people around the world who suffer from eating disorders?
For the amount of articles and listicles found about how great working out is, there aren't nearly enough that fearlessly discuss how quickly and easily it can turn dangerous - even fatal. The average person will look at these workout articles and feel encouraged. They will do the workouts as best as they can, try to eat cleaner, and see positive results within a reasonable and healthy amount of time. This is the ideal. However, the fitness industry fails to realize that there are millions of people around the world with issues, and likely obsessive personalities, who see these articles as a challenge to their "laziness."
These people do the workouts and feel a deep sense of shame and fury if they can't keep up with the entire thing. They push themselves in a punishing manner by making themselves work out every chance they get.
The gym has always been a very sacred place to me. That sounds really dramatic, but working out has always been a major part of my life. I started by taking dance classes at age three and only increased from there. I got my first gym membership at age 11. When I was younger, I didn't abuse exercise. However, I also didn't realize this was a possibility.
No one tells us how bad it can get. How you can easily turn one hour at the gym into two, three, four. No one tells us this is unsafe. Even other people at the gym applaud you for your "dedication." You begin to lose weight, and the world cheers you on. Of course this is one thing if you are in need of losing weight, but you're an averagely-sized, well-proportioned 19-year-old woman. They don't take the time to stop and say, "Wait a minute, you weren't overweight. Why are you losing? You're healthy and perfect just the way you are." Our society programs us to always, always view weight loss as a positive thing.
By the time people were starting to express their concerns, it was way too late. I was several pounds underweight and completely gone. But my issues didn't begin and end with food. In fact, exercise had much more of a hold over me than anything else.
I worked out seven days per week. I was in the gym every morning by 4:30 a.m., doing endless, soul-crushing cardio that was akin to crack for me. I also lifted weights, convinced any of it was healthy. I would stay for a minimum of three hours. I couldn't leave earlier than 7:30, but I could leave later (a fun little rule created by my OCD). If work ever scheduled me at this time, I would be in pieces. Sometimes I would just call out or say that I had school so I could go to the gym instead.
On top of the morning workouts, I forced myself (force, because I never had the energy. I never wanted to do any of this. I just believed I had to, and nothing could change my mind) to do yoga throughout the day, about 2-3 times. I also went on hour-long walks at least once a day, but sometimes as much as four or five. The icing on the cake was that I was also taking in very little calories.
I didn't realize at the time, but this was a sadistic amount of exercise. I lied to everyone around me, acting like I worked out much less than I did because I was scared to be found out. When I first started recovering and seeing my therapist, she asked how often I worked out and was completely stunned by my answer. The sad part is, I only told her about half of what I actually did.
As damaging as exercise can be while you're also starving yourself, it's even worse when you're already starting to recover.
My therapist was the first person to point out to me that I was fully addicted to exercise, and that my exercise addiction was much stronger than my eating problems. In the beginning, I still refused to see it. I thought if I just ate enough, I could continue working out as much as I did.
I kept working out as long as usual and lying to my therapist, telling her I had cut it down. She continued to strongly suggest that I should stop exercising completely. In recovery, you shouldn't work out until you are weight restored. Even then, you should keep it very light.
I couldn't see it at the time, but in recovery your body is going through more than it ever has. Your hormones are coming back into balance, your metabolism is waking back up, your heart is regaining strength, your stomach lining is healing itself and your body is slowly learning to trust you again. All of this adds up to leave you feeling exhausted when you haven't even gotten out of bed yet. Recovery drains you entirely and refuels you as a brand new person - you do NOT need exercise on top of this debilitating transformation.
I still refused to see it, and this harmed my recovery. Although I was taking in over 2000 calories per day, I was still exercising profusely. I was trying my best to cut it down, but the depression that overcame me when I cut too much was staggering. I couldn't convince myself to stop entirely.
This affected my body in extreme and terrifying ways. After working out, even after an hour and a half (I was successfully able to cut it down to this after a few months of convincing myself I had to stop), I felt close to death. My heart would be racing and weird sensations would shoot all over my body, sort of how I felt the night I had to go to urgent care before recovery. I knew deep down it was because I had to stop exercising, but I couldn't make myself do it.
On top of this, my extreme hunger lasted much longer than it seemed to last for other recoverers. I was still eating close to 3000 calories when I was almost a year into recovery and I couldn't understand it. I was eating just as much as "fitness girls" on Instagram claimed to eat, lifting weights and trying to minimize cardio, but I wasn't gaining any muscle. I was just gaining fat. A realization smacked me in the face when I got my body analyzed at a nutrition shop and they told me I had less muscle than the normal person. Of course, they didn't know anything about my anorexia or where I was coming from. But I realized I wasn't building strength yet because my body wasn't ready for that. It was still healing, and I had been 86 pounds just a few months prior. It was crazy of me to think that I'd go from skin and bones to muscular and fit with no in between. It's physically impossible, guys.
Of course, part of me recognized the truth to what my therapist had told me: when you continue to exercise in recovery, even if it's just an hour per day, your body remains in shock because you are still stripping calories away from it. You need as many calories as you can possibly get, especially in the beginning. This means no exercise until your body begins to feel stable again. But the addict in me refused to listen.
With time and a whole lot of effort, I've been able to successfully cut my exercise down to a healthy amount. I work out five days a week for about 45 minutes - one hour. Sometimes work gets busy and I only make it to the gym three or four days, and that's okay. But it took me a long time to get to this point, and I am aware that I still have a lot of compulsions around exercise that I continue to work on and challenge myself with.
However, this doesn't negate the fact that I continued to harm myself with exercise in recovery. That did a lot of damage, and that needs to be talked about. If you are new in recovery and still exercising, I need you to be braver than I was. I need you to realize that taking a few months away from exercise will not do you any harm. In fact, it is the smartest and strongest thing you can do for your body. Continuing in your rigid discipline and routines does not make you tough. It makes you weak. You're giving into the compulsions that have dictated your life for what seems like forever, but you can break away.
I'm proud of the progress I've made in the gym and how much I've been able to cut down, but the fact is I didn't do recovery the right way at first. I continued to strip my body of what it needed because of my own addiction and I gained nothing from it (except the inevitable and necessary weight). I was trying to control my own recovery by exercising throughout it, but what you need to finally realize when you choose recovery is that you cannot be in control anymore. You have to give up the reigns for the greater good.
I work out five days a week for about 45 minutes - one hour, and that is the least I have worked out in years and years. However, I've never seen better results. I'm stronger, faster, happier, healthier, brighter and fuller of life than I have ever known myself to be. But the progress I've made shouldn't just be about how my body looks or how much I can squat. The progress I've made is in my heart. It's in the life that I almost lost and was able to find again. It has nothing to do with how I look and everything to do with how I feel.
Towards the end of my eating disorder when I was feeling my lowest, I remember wondering what the point of my life was. My entire existence seemed to revolve around exercise and food, but something inside me knew that couldn't be it.
We're put on this earth to LIVE. We are here to leave a fucking mark, whether that be with a beautiful family, a thriving career, a passionate love - we aren't just here to waste away. Life is not a contest of who can be the skinniest, the sickest, the **"healthiest." Life isn't that cut and dry. It's messy, sometimes scary, it's full of anger and sadness and love and joy and beauty and YOU. It's real. Your eating disorder or exercise addiction is a way to escape that reality.
Fuck your eating disorder. Fuck your exercise addiction. Embrace the fact that you are a unique, talented, wonderful individual and without you, our world wouldn't be the same at all. Your ED is trying to take you away from us, but we don't want you to go.
Recovery is supposed to be about treating yourself with kindness, so start today. You will not gain any more weight if you stop exercising than if you continue to. The fact is, your body has to recover. It doesn't care how long it takes or how much you try to fight it - it wants to get better. For once, let your body do the talking. It knows you better than you think. Focus on letting go and the rest will come. No one said you had to spend your entire life obsessing over the amount of space you take up. You are supposed to be here, and you are supposed to be healthy. There is enough room here for you, and you belong.
**When I say "healthiest" here, I do not mean actual health I mean it in the sense that many people with eating disorders' views are so warped, they truly believe they are achieving health by starving themselves or over-exercising. It does not seem excessive to them, only necessary.