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Incorporating Exercise and Mindful Movement in Eating Disorder Recovery

In today’s era of all-consuming diet culture trends, exercise is often perceived as a way to achieve the “ideal body” while taking the joy out of healthy movement – but it doesn’t have to be this way. 

Many people with eating disorders not only struggle with their relationship with food but also struggle with excessive or compensatory exercise behaviors. Viewing exercise as a “punishment” or a way to compensate for eating certain foods can be extremely damaging to one’s mental health and may even hinder one’s recovery journey.

That being said, you should always integrate new recovery strategies with the support and guidance from a mental health professional. In this post, we’ll cover the role of exercise in eating disorder recovery and how you can start integrating mindful movement into your recovery journey.

What is Mindful Movement?

Simply put, mindful movement involves exercise without the emphasis on a certain outcome (like weight loss). Mindful movement encourages us to stay in the present moment, find joy in exercise, and become more aware of our bodies.

Scholars in eating disorder treatment identify two types of movement for individuals working toward recovery: mindless and mindful exercise. In this model, mindful exercise focuses on the process of becoming healthier and stronger, whereas mindless exercise is more likely to be appearance-based and focused on a certain outcome. 

Here’s an overview of how the qualities of mindless and mindful exercise differ:

Mindless ExerciseMindful Exercise
Focuses on the past or the futureStays in the present moment
Focuses on external outcomes (e.g.: calories burned)Focuses on internal processes (e.g.: breathing)
Depletes and impairs the bodyRejuvenates the body
Disrupts mind-body connectionImproves mind-body connection
Worsens mental and physical strainAlleviates mental and physical strain
Brings pain and dreadProvides pleasure and joy

While engaging in mindful movement, you exercise at your own pace, taking breaks periodically to make sure you’re listening to your body and what it’s telling you. This not only breaks patterns of compulsive exercise but also helps to rebuild a better mind-body connection.

Recognizing an Unhealthy Relationship With Exercise

We all know that getting enough physical activity is essential for maintaining optimal health and overall well-being. But in eating disorder recovery, how do you know if your relationship with exercise is considered unhealthy?

For individuals with eating disorders, an unhealthy relationship with exercise can present itself in a variety of different ways including:

  1. Compulsive exercise: When exercise is prioritized over certain life events, is done at inappropriate times/places, and continues even after physical injury.
  2. Excessive exercise/overexercise: When exercise exceeds what is considered healthy or appropriate for one’s individual needs (could include working out for a prolonged amount of time or at an excessive intensity).
  3. Compensatory exercise: When exercise is used as a “punishment” for not abiding by the rules of one’s eating disorder or used to “make up” for a number of calories consumed previously.
  4. Exercise avoidance: When an eating disorder results in complete aversion to physical activity, causing full disengagement from exercise (or exercise avoidance).

Adjusting to Mindful Movement

If you are struggling with an unhealthy relationship with exercise, it can be difficult to understand how to shift to a more positive mindset. This is especially true if you’ve been in an appearance-based or outcome-based exercise mindset for a long period of time.

When first adjusting to mindful movement and exercise, it can feel quite strange and unnatural to keep the negative body-image thoughts out of your mind, which is perfectly normal and okay. More than likely, it will take some time to fully adjust to the principles of mindful movement.

Not sure where to start? Here are some examples of mindful movement activities that focus your attention on the current moment:

  • Go for a walk while listening to your favorite music or podcast 
  • Do some light jogging – either outside or on a treadmill
  • Try yoga (this is a great opportunity to focus on breathing techniques!)
  • Plan and go for a hike with family and/or friend(s)
  • Try dance workouts – in-person classes and online videos are great resources
  • Go biking around your neighborhood or town

Why You Should Embrace Mindful Movement

Influences in our society – like weight stigma and diet culture – often distort the way we think about healthy exercise. In many cases, these influences may even deter us from engaging in mindful movement to begin with. However, there are so many healing benefits from rebuilding your relationship with exercise that can help propel and support your recovery.

Here are some more reasons why you should consider embracing mindful movement in your recovery journey:

  1. Exercise can be fun. Too often, we are exposed to rigorous exercise regimens that focus on achieving a certain outcome, like losing weight or gaining muscle, when we should be focusing on how exercising makes us feel. Remember – movement should be fun, so take some time to think about your favorite activities that involve both mindful movement and genuine personal enjoyment. 
  2. Exercise may help reduce stress. Regularly engaging in physical movement can have a huge improvement on overall stress levels by decreasing levels of cortisol and adrenaline – two main stress hormones in the body.
  3. Exercise may help you reconnect with your body. Eating disorders often leave us feeling disconnected or isolated from our bodies. Mindful movement can be an effective way to get back in touch with our body’s cues and improve mind-body connection.
  4. Exercise may improve your overall mental health. Studies show can engaging in healthy, balanced exercise can improve various aspects of mental health, including self-esteem, mood, and cognitive function.
  5. Exercise may improve quality of sleep. Mindful exercise may also improve your quality of sleep – including how fast you fall asleep and stay asleep during the night. 

Mindful Movement For Your Recovery Journey

Diet culture and unrealistic body ideals have completely distorted the way many people view food and exercise in relation to their bodies. For people with eating disorders, this harmful narrative around exercise and weight loss can make matters worse – especially when trying to recover.

The bottom line is that exercise should not be used as a way to compensate for eating certain foods or to reach a certain body weight/shape. Instead, mindful movement focuses on finding genuine pleasure in physical activity while staying present in the current moment, listening to our bodies every step of the way.

Wondering how you can start healing your relationship with food and exercise? Schedule a consultation to see how VERY can support you in your recovery.