When should you reintroduce exercise during eating disorder recovery?

As part of your eating disorder recovery, your practitioner may have eliminated or reduced the amount of exercise you can do, especially if you are severely underweight. Understanding and finding the balance between exercising compulsively and exercising for pleasure is tough, and so knowing when and how to reintroduce exercise can be both confusing and scary.

This month, our blog post has been written by Dr Natalie Chua. She has designed an acronym (F.E.E.D), to help you feel more confident about reintroducing exercise.

Using F.E.E.D. when you are recovering from an eating disorder

F.E.E.D is an acronym I created to help clients develop a new understanding and relationship with exercise and movement during their eating disorder recovery. It stands for: Focus, Experience, Effect and Decision making. This relationship is an important, but often neglected aspect of treatment, and deserves special attention.

Many of my clients describe their compulsion to exercise as a nagging, critical voice that pushes them to work out despite how exhausted they may feel. Yet, the urge to exercise persists, and they are overcome by feelings of guilt if they do not comply with this internal sense of urgency.

Some have described their relationship with exercise as feeling like an ‘addiction’ or ‘obsession’, so much so, that they would prioritise it over other life affirming and meaningful aspects of their life. For example, they might decline social events and family functions so they don’t miss their workout, and prioritise exercise over their hobbies and interests. Consequently, this marginalises other areas of their lives, and, unfortunately, perpetuates the eating disorder as exercise increasingly becomes the only source of stimulation and pleasure.

Meanwhile, others are convinced that something truly terrible will happen to them if they do not exercise daily, and a great majority of people also hold the unhelpful belief that they should not, and cannot, eat unless they’ve exercised sufficiently.

All this can make you feel really unsure and even fearful about reintroducing exercise during your eating disorder recovery, in case it reinstates the illness.

To be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with exercising. Exercising is a great stress reliever and mood booster; it only becomes problematic when it becomes your only way of coping and feeling better about yourself.

F.E.E.D guides you through this stage of your recovery, so you can better understand whether your drive to exercise is based on desire for ‘diet/fear-driven movement’ or ‘compassionate movement’; that is, listening to what your body needs.

Where’s your FOCUS?

Let’s begin with ‘focus’. Before exercising, take a gentle pause, and reflect on your focus for exercising. Ask yourself: what’s my focus? Is it solely to burn calories or to lose weight? Would I still exercise if I knew it would not have any effect on the way my body looks? Do I believe that something terrible will happen to me if I don’t exercise right now? Be honest with yourself here. If your answer is centred on burning calories or weight loss, your focus is based on diet/fear-driven movement.

Conversely, compassionate movement means being in tune with what feels good for your body. To do this, you need to focus your attention on the lived sensory experience of your body (how you’re feeling from the inside out), as opposed to thoughts about what you’ve eaten and what you dislike about your body.

It’s important to pause if your ‘internal dial’ has swayed towards diet/fear-driven movement. Rather than habitually exercising simply because the urge is there, bring your attention to your body. Reflect on these questions: How is my body feeling? Are there any areas that feel tense, tired, and depleted? Locate these sensations in your body, where the felt sense of tension and exhaustion lives. Let your body guide you. Let your attention linger on the different areas of your body that feel tired and make a decision from there.

For example, if your back and shoulders feel tight, perhaps you would benefit from a gentle stretch rather than a high-intensity workout. Compassionate movement is all about tuning in and listening to internal sensations. Compassionate movement is an invitation to care for the body. In this frame of mind, we are listening to the body, rather than seeing it as an object that needs to be fixed.

It is also important to bring your attention to what you’re consuming on social media. Perhaps you feel the need to keep up with the level of activity you see online. My recommendation is to unfollow anyone who adds pressure to your compulsion to exercise. Know that this is the kind thing to do for yourself.

Your EXPERIENCE with exercise

Now we understand where your focus is, we move onto ‘experience’.

If your focus is exclusively on one thing, e.g. burning calories, imagine what you’re going to experience while exercising. It’ll likely feel like a punishment, an obligation. Not fun!

In contrast, compassionate movement encourages you to tune in and listen to how your body is feeling in the moment, and exercise according to a realistic appraisal of your energy levels.

Picture these scenarios: you’ve set yourself up to do a 30-minute online workout. At the start you feel good, but five minutes in, you feel exhausted. The compassionate thing is to pause the video and decide instead to do a shorter workout today, or even to skip it altogether. It’s important to remember that you are not being lazy if you choose to do this. Rather you are being wise and respectful to your body. Alternatively, you might decide to do a 15-minute stretch, however, you might realise that you in fact have a lot of energy and need to move your body in a different way. It’s important to listen to your body, whether it’s asking you to slow down, or increase the level of activity you are doing. Check in frequently with your focus (that is, your intention) for moving your body; is it driven by fear, or by compassion?

The EFFECT of your movement

Building an awareness of the effect that exercise has on you is critical to understanding where you are between diet/fear driven movement and compassionate movement.

When you exercise in a diet driven or fear driven way – pushing yourself regardless of how your body is feeling – you might get that temporary thrill of accomplishing a goal, but a sense of body dissatisfaction continues to persist. You will also feel even more depleted than when you started moving your body.

In contrast, exercising through compassionate movement will help you to feel restored and nourished, because you’re exercising according to a realistic appraisal of how much energy you have, and what your body truly needs. The effect of compassionate movement is that it will leave you feeling balanced, in tune with your body, rather than drained. Movement can and may feel challenging, but it ultimately brings you joy!

What are your DECISIONS based on?

Each stage of the F.E.E.D acronym is interlinked, so when you arrive at the point of decision making, I hope you’ll be better placed to make a conscious decision as opposed to a compulsive one. Diet-driven and fear-based movement is often motivated by guilt and fear, while compassionate movement is motivated by a sense of self-awareness, understanding what your body needs, and what feels pleasurable and joyful.

Exercise is supposed to be fun, not just painful. We live in a ‘diet culture’ where we’re surrounded by content and messaging that pushes us towards diet-driven movement. This can sometimes lead us to believe that to move compassionately is wrong. But it’s so important to find a type of movement that makes you feel good.

I highly recommend finding a practice that emphasises the mind-body connection, rather than on burning calories, sculpting the body, or on pushing yourself to your limit. Gentle yoga, five rhythms and free-form dancing are great places to start. These practices emphasise the mind-body connection, and are a great way to start experiencing a different way of being in your body, and moving your body.

Please know that finding it hard to discern between diet/fear-driven movement and compassionate movement during your eating disorder recovery is completely normal. Recovering from an eating disorder is hard work; finding the balance takes time, curiosity, and the willingness to try something different.

What I hope you’ve learned from this blog is that you do have a choice as to how you’re going to F.E.E.D your body with movement. I hope that with practice and time you’re able to build on your self-compassion and generate greater self-awareness, in order to enjoy the nourishing and restorative effects of movement and exercise.

If you, or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please get in touch to book a free consultation to discuss how we can help.

Here’s our summary of the differences between diet/fear-driven movement and compassionate movement:

Summary of FEED acronym


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