climbED: Eating Disorders and Exercise

Something that I have found particularly difficult with anorexia is exercise. I have battled with exercise addiction in the past, at one point I’d spend nearly the whole day exercising in one way or another. My parents bought a cross-trainer and it became an addiction instantly.

There have been plenty of times where I have used exercise purely to burn calories and I still do from time to time but now I mostly have a good relationship with exercise. I dance for enjoyment, to socialise and to gain confidence rather than specifically to burn calories. I am a keen dancer and dance with a team that compete and this is great for my mental health. Sometimes it is the only thing I do outside my house but my mental health team aren’t always happy with me dancing.

I find ‘exercise ban’ quite difficult, I totally understand it at dangerously low weights but I almost wish that there was a balance at safer weights because the positive impact dance has on my mental health far outweighs my mental health team’s concerns of burning calories.

Getting the balance right is definitely something I still struggle with and I’m sure many people do. I think exercise is great for mental health but it’s being able to do it in a safe and non-obsessive way that doesn’t feed into the eating disorder.

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An Addiction to Exercise: A personal account

A huge part of my eating disorder is exercise and I would go as far as saying that I have an addiction to exercise. Seriously, addicted. I do not mean that I enjoy it or I probably do it too much. I mean that I have a genuine problem with exercise and I feel compulsions to do it. Although I know that overexercising is commonly associated with eating disorders I also think that it is not eating disorder sufferers alone that battle with it. At this time in society going to the gym is extremely popular. There is a huge pressure on women to stay slim and lean and a huge pressure on men to bulk out and ‘gain’. It has become the norm to buy those huge tubs of protein powder and drink protein shakes for ‘meals’. Add that pressure to the endorphins that exercising releases and it creates a doorway for problems. Don’t get me wrong, I know plenty of people who have a  healthy relationship with the gym and protein but I also know others who have made themselves unwell, gotten injured or are deeply unhappy, these people did not suffer from eating disorders but they had what they described as an addiction to exercise.

I do not know how to ‘fix’ or cure this. I wish I did. I just hope that by sharing my experience of my unhealthy relationship with exercise that it will raise some awareness and help someone else who is suffering to feel less alone. I want to show that it is not always so black and white-exercise is not always a good thing and can actually be very harmful.

My problem with exercise began in secondary school, I lived a twenty minute walk away from school but I would wake up before 6am in order to leave the house before 7am. I would then walk around my town for over an hour and a half because that was the only way that I could cope with the thought of sitting in lessons all day. I lied to my parents telling them that I was having breakfast at a friend’s house when really I was walking around in the dark and freezing cold. I did gymnastics, dance and trampolining on top of my walking which usually totaled at least two hours a day.

It was around that time that I started going to the local gym, they had a session called ‘techno kids’ which was specifically for under sixteens. I joined because they had scales there and my parents didn’t keep scales in the house. I remember one day I was working out on the rowing machines when a member of staff came up to me and said, “You’ve burnt off a chocolate biscuit. Just think all that effort and it’s only burnt off one…it’s a lot easier to eat them than to burn them off right!” That stuck with me. It was a turning point in my life because ever since that I have felt I need to burn off whatever I eat and I worry about the amount I am putting into my body because I know how long it takes to burn it off. Chocolate biscuits became a huge fear food too!

When I left school I went to study dance at a local college before getting a place in a professional performing arts school which had a huge focus on dance. There were incredibly dark times at both of those schools, at the local college I would often go without food until a small meal in the evening and I would spend the day dancing and walking. I was performing with a small company at the time too. I remember how full my schedule was: a full time dance diploma, Saturday tap, modern and ballet classes and then there would be rehearsals and three to five performances a week and on top it all off I would still be doing sit ups in my room in the middle of the night. I would exercise until I cried, my spine was covered in bruises and I was exhausted and tearful all the time. At the professional school I would have two hours of walking a day on top of a full 8am-5pm timetable and I would do it on an empty stomach a lot of the time.

I think the problem with exercise became a lot worse after I had to leave the school. I had gone from years of constant dancing to nothing. As well as the heartache that came from losing my dreams I also had the worry of not exercising enough. I started doing what I called the ‘head to toe’ exercise routine, which was as it says a routine where I worked out everything from head to toe. I would do it constantly but no matter how tired I was or how much it hurt, it was never enough.

My parents bought a cross trainer and my life became an exercise timetable. I would spend the entire day switching between the cross trainer, yoga, ‘just dance’, stretching, cardio routines and ballet. It was hell.

During my most recent hospital admission exercise was a massive issue but it is not one that was ‘recognised’. I was never asked to stop or given support with it and I guess that’s because there isn’t enough awareness around this issue. A lot of people assume exercise is good when the truth is it can be as harmful as taking illegal substances or binge drinking. It has the potential to damage your body for life.  I am on an ‘exercise ban’ right now because my psychologist and dietitian both feel that it would be harmful to me and that I could damage my joints, bones and ligaments.

During my time on the ward, especially during the re-feeding period, I would exercise constantly. I’d walk up and down the courtyard or the corridors for hours, sometimes this would change to a run if I was particularly struggling. I would jog on the spot in my room, perform start jumps and squats. Twice I injured myself through excessive exercise. One needing a trip to A&E. All that and it was never once seen as a problem despite it being as risky to me as self-induced vomiting or self harming.

Even now, when I know that I should not be exercising I cannot stop, I constantly move around, do step ups…I even exercise in the bath moving my legs up and down. I can never relax during my waking hours and it is totally exhausting. I wish I knew how to stop, I guess it’s probably just learning to tolerate the thoughts of exercise without actually doing it but that is way easier said than done.

I will say to anyone who is struggling or to anyone who’s illness is searching for ‘tips and tricks’ in this post that you do not have to burn off food. I have noticed that in the media there is a lot of talk that suggests what you eat you must then burn off but that is not true. The calories you eat each day go towards many things: brain function, repairing muscles, strong nail, shiny hair and so on. Think about how many times your chest moves in and out as you exhale or inhale and how many times your heart (which is essentially a big muscle) beats…in a way your body is constantly working out and it is definitely constantly burning calories. If we needed to burn off everything we eat by exercising then why do they feed patients who are in a coma?

If you are worried about yourself or someone else, here are some links that you may find useful: