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How to Incorporate Movement During Eating Disorder Recovery

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This post was written by Jessica Steinbach, MPH, RD.

Incorporating movement into your life while in recovery from an eating disorder can be complex and overwhelming to navigate. This blog post will help you develop a better understanding of what joyful movement is and when it is appropriate to re-incorporate movement back into your life. 

It’s important to determine if you are ready to incorporate movement back into your life before engaging in any physical activity. Movement should always be something that is joyful to participate in. Yes, movement puts physical stress on your body but it shouldn’t induce emotional stress. Ask yourself the following questions before deciding to engage in movement!

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Why am I choosing to move my body today?

Is your intention to clear your head or connect with your body? There are a number of reasons that one may engage in movement that don’t involve modifying your body’s appearance. Consider what motivations for movement are truly rooted in self-care versus which may be tied up in your eating disorder.

Have I nourished my body appropriately in the last few days?

Proper nourishment is imperative when engaging in physical activity. While movement doesn’t dictate how much or how little you should eat, it’s important to nourish your body adequately so that you can engage in movement when you choose. 

What will I do if disordered thoughts creep in?

If you’ve ever had a disordered relationship with movement (such as using movement to “earn” or “burn” food), it may be hard to stop intrusive thoughts during physical activity. If you experience these thoughts, what will you do? Will you take a break? Use a coping skill? Stop for the day? Make sure you have a plan, including coping strategies, before you re-introduce movement into your life. This is something you can work on with your eating disorder therapist and dietitian. 

Exploring movement in recovery

If you’ve decided that you feel ready to start moving your body again, great! If you are not ready, that is OK, too. Gentle stretching and walks with anyone who feels supportive towards your recovery are great ways to move your body that may be less likely to trigger disordered thoughts. 

Movement can be a great tool to gain strength, maintain cardiovascular health, and improve mental health; however, if movement is not joyful, it has the potential to cause more harm than good. Joyful movement is movement that feels energizing for your mind and body, it may bring you happiness, peace, or pleasure, and is not used to control or change the size or shape of your body. Movement can involve dancing, running, playing, gardening, rock climbing, walking, swimming, etc. and can be as intense or relaxed as you’d like.

Consider these things when you are choosing to move your body:

7 questions to consider before incorporating movement during eating disorder recovery

How do I feel physically?

Do you need to take a break, lessen the intensity or stretch more before continuing? Or perhaps you’ve had enough and it’s time to wind down.

Am I having fun?

If you notice that the movement is no longer enjoyable or that you are disconnected from your body, it’s a good idea to pause or wind down.

Is there anything I need to make this experience more enjoyable? 

Do you need some water? To move to the shade or sun? To change the playlist or book you are listening to? Creating an optimal environment can make movement even more exciting!

Am I connected to my emotional self?

Understanding how your emotions are impacted by movement is very important. Your emotional self may be telling you that this movement is wonderful or maybe that you need to express gratitude toward your body. Being fully connected (if it feels safe) can make movement more meaningful. 

The process of re-incorporating activity is ever-evolving what feels good for your body today may not feel good tomorrow and that is OK. Continue to check in with yourself as your relationship with movement evolves. As you continue to explore movement in recovery, make sure to develop a routine to nourish your body before and after you move. Each person will have individualized needs when it comes to nutrition. Work with your dietitian to develop a plan that works best for you. If you do not have a dietitian, reach out to work with us here.

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A list of questions to consider before incorporating movement during eating disorder recovery

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