What I Learned When I Let Go of Exercise

The journey to recovery is not fast or glamorous. I’ve been in recovery for 9 years, and it has taken commitment and time to get to the place I am today. As I reflect over the last 9 years, I clearly remember moments of discouragement, where I felt I was making no progress, that I’d never truly recover, that I could never eat normally. Fast forward to now, I can’t believe where I am. I didn’t take a magic pill or follow a miracle program, I simply showed up every day determined to experience freedom (easier said than done). For me, it also took an injury and chronic pain to break through the last hurdles of my recovery.

Six years ago, I was at a healthy weight and was free from most eating disorder behaviors, but exercise was still a crutch. It held so much power over me, and the thought of letting it go scared me. Then, while training for my first marathon my knee started hurting and it hasn’t stopped since. I thought the pain would go away, but it never did. The pain was so debilitating that I couldn’t walk up stairs, sit with legs bent for long periods of time, or walk without pain.

Needless to say, all exercise and movement stopped. That first year of my injury was the hardest. I fell into a deeper depression and was debilitated with fear that I would gain weight from not exercising. The urges to give into my eating disorder were strong. I honestly cannot remember what helped me get through this year, but with a lot of prayer, tears, and support from family I began to have hope that I would heal.

Determined not to fall back into restriction, yet unable to exercise I had to trust that my body still needed adequate food even though I was not exercising. And now 6 years later, my body hasn’t changed drastically, and my perspective towards food, exercise, and my body has been transformed. Here are a couple of the things that I’ve learned through this process.

1. You don’t have to earn food I hear time and again people saying how they ran X miles so they can eat X. Food is fuel and our bodies need fuel for normal living, such as breathing, thinking, digesting food, sleeping, washing dishes, etc. You are not more “deserving” of eating if you did a hard workout. Everyone deserves to eat. I can say from experience that I still eat wonderful, delicious food regardless of how I move my body.

2. Exercise encompasses all types of movement Before my injury, I still had the mentality that only certain activities for certain amounts of time qualified as movement. With an injury, I have had to be very creative with how to get movement in (because my body still craves it), and this means broadening my definition of exercise. I’ve tried swimming, pilates, yoga, and light weights, all activities I avoided for a while and I found that I love them. Now, I’ve taken a big step away from movement due to trying to truly heal my knee, and movement looks like doing my physical therapy, stretching, and occasionally going on walks. When I am able to freely exercise again, I cannot wait to incorporate a variety of movement for fun, not because I “should.”

3. Being able to exercise is a wonderful thing I am by no means saying exercise is bad. However, if you cannot imagine going X amount of days not exercising or if you have rigid rules around exercise, it may be time to evaluate your relationship with it. I have learned so much through not being able to exercise, but it has been hard. I miss pushing myself, breaking a sweat, and the freedom to move without worrying about pain. When approached in a healthy way, exercise if a gift. It helps with heart and bone health, relieving stress, and boosting endorphins. I am excited to one day be able to approach exercise with this mindset.

4. Learning to listen to my body One thing my eating disorder taught me was to listen to my head more than my body. I tuned out hunger signals, pain, and the need to rest, and instead willed myself into what I thought I should do. With knee pain, I’ve had to listen to my body or else I will make my injury worse. My knee was telling me to stop moving and rest. I will be honest that I’ve been stubborn at times, but overall this injury has taught me to listen and care for my body. Which has in turn has infiltrated the rest of my life, especially rest and intuitive eating. 5. I can trust my body As I mentioned, taking 6 years off of exercising the way I’d like to and allowing myself to eat all foods, has not made me blow up like a balloon. I honestly feel more in tune with my body and stronger because of it. Over years of facing my worst fears, I’ve learned that my body is incredibly smart, and I can trust it. So when I’m feeling hungry or craving a certain food, I eat it; when I’m exhausted, I take some time to rest; and when my knee is hurting, I adjust my movement.

I pray you never have to have an injury like mine to heal your relationship with your body, food, and exercise, however I do feel that taking some time away from exercise can be very healing. Maybe it’s time to evaluate how exercise plays a role in your life. I promise, you will not die if you take some time away. If anything, you will be more in tune with yourself and have a fuller life.


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