I get asked this question a lot from people who are compulsive movers.
The answer is yes, if you want. Actually, the whole point of full recovery is that you can do whatever the fuck you want.
But …, and … do not be in a hurry to get back to exercise. Don’t allow anyone else to rush your process either. Neural rewiring takes time. Full recovery takes time. You won’t harm your recovery by waiting but you could harm it by exercising too soon.
The annoying part is there is no formula for neural rewiring that allows me to tell you exactly how long it will take for the exercise<–>food link in your brain to become forgotten. Erring on the side of caution is giving it more time. Don’t rush this process.
I know I’ll get some slack from certain hardline “never exercise” people for this post. There is this idea out there, that people who recover from anorexia never really recover, and that they are perpetually in remission, and therefore can never trust themselves to do so much as walk the dog without relapsing.
If you have read my blogs you will hopefully know that I believe that compulsive exercise is an important element (for some, not all) of a restrictive eating disorder for many people,. You will have also read that I had to go “cold turkey” from exercise, and lower-level movement, in order to unlink the connection between movement and eating in my brain. Years of anorexia had left me with neural pathways that told me I had to move in order to eat. In order to rewire these, I had to put myself through the test of not moving in response to those compulsive urges. That was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. For me, moving less was more difficult than eating more.
But I did it. There may have been a number of tantrums and lots of tears, but I did it. And so can you.
An eating disorder can be a very black-and-white thinking time for most of us. I think that there, in times of real famine, would have been an evolutionary advantage to back and white thinking. I don’t think it is a coincidence that most people with an active eating disorder are very black and white, I think is it part of the packet that gets opened up when an eating disorder is triggered in a person with the genetic predisposition for one. I was incredibly monochrome in my thinking when I had an eating disorder. Now, fully recovered, I’m a lot more able to see a situation or a problem or a circumstance in a range of different colours and shades.
People in recovery may think in a very black and white manner, but recovery concepts cannot be. While there are certainly some do’s and don’ts across the board (like don’t restrict) we are all different, and you have to be able to listen to your body and assess your own mind when deciding what advice to take. Let’s not be black-and-white with recovery concepts and say things like “you can never exercise again,” because not only is that over simplistic, it is not freedom. The whole point of full recovery is freedom from the rules, and the ability to do what genuinely feels good.
Full recovery means that movement and food will be unlinked in your brain. You will no longer feel that you need to move more in order to justify eating more. You will no longer have compulsive desires to exercise or move. You won’t feel the need to take the longest path when you walk anywhere, or park in the space furthest away from the shop that you want to go into so what you get to walk those extra 10 steps. You won’t care what other people do in terms of exercise, and your partner telling you he/she is going to work out won’t even raise a whisper of emotion in you. You certainly won’t feel compelled to have to do more than him/her or anyone else when it comes to exercise and working out. You’ll be able to choose to sit on the sofa and watch 80’s films and period dramas (okay, maybe that is just me) on a Sunday afternoon rather than going off hiking if that is what you felt like doing that day. You will be able to make movement decisions based on whether or not you feel like doing it, rather than having to or feeling like you ought. All this comes with nutritional rehabilitation to turn off the anorexia response, and neural rewiring to re-route those eating disorder-generated behavioral neural pathways. All this work takes time. But the end result is mental freedom.
Will I ever be able to exercise again?
When you are fully recovered, you will not be ruled by wanting to do things in order to serve restriction, weight suppression, or compulsions. Therefore, you can trust yourself that if you want to move, it is because it feels good, and you actually want to, not because you feel you have to. Big difference.
I took at least a year off exercise. It was more, but a year was the goal I set myself. I, personally, needed a minimum period of a year in order to really force myself out of complusive movement. After that year was up, much to my surprise, the thought of returning to the gym made me feel sick physically and mentally. So I didn’t. That year off, the nutritional rehabilitation and neural rewiring that took place within it, meant that by the end of the year I was in a place where I could actually see how much I truly hated the gym. Given the choice, I chose not to return. Not because I was forcing myself not to, but because I was able to listen to my desire not to. That felt incredibly empowering.
Gradually, I started adding things for fun: walking the dog with friends, riding horses. Things I wanted, truly to do. Not because they would allow me the false promise of eating more. Not because I felt compelled. Because I wanted to. I was still careful in this time. I watched my brain for signs of neural pathways re-emerging. I watched my body for signs of fatigue. I listened to myself brilliantly as I explored what it was to move for pleasure.
You have to be recovered before you start again. Recovery is the base for everything good in life. Achieve recovery first. Take your time.
If you no longer have an active eating disorder, and you no longer have exercise compulsions, and you can trust yourself to do what you want to do and what is right for you. This may or may not mean movement that makes you feel good and happy. If you don’t have any ulterior motives, you will move if you want to, and not move if you don’t want to.
If you don’t feel that you can trust yourself, or that your exercise compulsions are completely gone, then you have to be sensible and keep boundaries in place. Reaching full recovery is a process, and not often a linear one. It is also about you taking responsibility for you. It doesn’t matter what other people do, or are doing. It doesn’t matter what they think, or, if they are a medical provider, what their previous patients might have done. It is about you making decisions based on what you know to be true for you. If you know that you can’t go a walk without it turning into a “thing” then that is your truth, and you have to take the action to support your recovery process.
If you have a compulsive movement problem you will have to stop in order to re-establish a more “normal” relationship with movement. But I do not believe it is helpful to say to people that if they are in recovery from an eating disorder, they will never be able to dance, or walk the dog, or go for a hike with friends again. Of course you will. The joy of having a healthy happy, fully nutritionally sound body is being able to use it to do fun things!
(If you want.)