Why I will never tell you to workout
It’s true, I will never tell you to workout.
In the journey to intuitive eating habits, there is always another parallel story that is just as important to shine a light on. That story is the tale of the fitness junkie, cardio bunny, gym rat. You know the story.
Maybe you wake up each morning and pull on your workout clothes, whether begrudgingly or joyfully. You hop in the car and listen to NPR on the way into the gym as you dream of the food you’re going to eat after this terribly intense workout. You think about all the calories you’re going to burn and the food you’re going to earn in your sweat sesh. After basically killing yourself, you go home and gorge yourself on the newest Pinterest recipe of protein pancakes, a slice of cold pizza, and your favorite chocolate food bar. Then you feel so guilty for the binge that you begin planning tomorrow morning’s workout before the sweat is even dry from that morning’s session. You think of all the ways you can burn a few extra calories the rest of the day in hopes of making up for the morning eating craze.
Or maybe you really, truly love to exercise – it’s your outlet, it’s your way of getting introspective/introverted time, it’s your way to process life happenings. So, you, too, wake up every morning and throw on your running shoes and run X number of miles. During your run, maybe you’re mainly concerned with the way you look to passersby, and how you hope you don’t look like that person running on the other side of the street. (It’s okay, disordered eating can make the kindest of people a little judgmental sometimes). You get home and cook some egg whites and spinach and head off to work. An hour after getting to work, your stomach is growling and you can’t focus in your meeting. You just keep dreaming about how wonderful your run was and how even better tomorrow morning’s run is going to be because you aren’t eating a snack that morning in the name of “looking good” in front of your co-workers.
Whatever your past, present, or future struggle may be with exercise, it is such a sensitive subject for disordered eaters. Exercise and food go hand in hand. If your relationship with one is unhealthy and imbalanced, odds are the same is true for the other.
When I was in the pits of my eating disorder, I found myself incredibly defensive when my friends or family would ask if I wanted to go to the gym or go for a walk with them. I wouldn’t express it outwardly, but my insides would fester with anger as I thought to myself, “Are they saying I’m fat? I did eat _____ last night. I must be fat…” So, I would go to the gym. I would workout far too long at an intensity far too high. I would feel so great about myself – so accomplished, so perfect, so beautiful, so loved. What I didn’t realize was happening was that I didn’t feel accomplished, perfect, beautiful and loved on the days that I didn’t exercise. I felt miserable, disgusting, and depressed. Exercise became a punishment for not being the best and a penance for eating too much nut butter.
Though working out and fitness can be a massive roadblock for many who are in difficult chapters of their health story, exercise can be good. It can be healthy. It can be energizing and an integral part of your journey to loving your body! Exercise increases dopamine (DA), norepinephrine (NE) and serotonin (5-HT) activity in your brain which helps regulate mood, stress response, and sleep. Exercise can also increase the transcription (via mRNA) of these neurotransmitter’s receptors, therefore, increasing the brain’s ability to uptake DA, NE and 5-HT. So, if you struggle with mood swings, depression, anxiety, concentration, and sleep, exercise can be incredibly beneficial! Exercise also boosts your body’s production of glutathione, which is an endogenous (made in the body) antioxidant. Glutathione is incredibly immunomodulatory (regulates your immune system’s functionality) so it is critical for combating oxidative stress and fighting off illness and disease.
Those are just two of the many wonderful things that exercise can do for our bodies. However, it can also be most detrimental. I sometimes talk about functional hypothalamic amenorrhea (FHA/HA). We often times will exercise beyond the point of health and our bodies jump into survival mode. In survival mode, only the functions most important to living, such as heart function, liver detoxification, and nutrient absorption, are sustained by the little energy we have left. Often times, our reproductive systems are the first to give way to the bigger systems so that they can have all the energy reserves. Maybe your story is familiar with FHA.
FHA can be brought on by weight-loss, stress, and over-exercising. Many athletes actually experience FHA. Essentially, those with FHA experience very imbalanced hormones so that estrogen plummets and cortisol (stress-response hormone) skyrockets. Many times, women with FHA will present with a sex hormone panel resembling that of a post-menopausal woman (I was a perfect example of this). FHA not only affects your hormones, but also your bone health, mental health, and cardiovascular health.
So, will I tell you to go run three miles or lift weights? Short answer: NOPE. Will I encourage you to take a break from exercise as you’re healing your relationship with food and discovering intuitive eating? Short answer: YEP!
I will always encourage you to explore joyful movement that celebrates the incredible things that your body can do. What do you love doing? Do you love playing with your dog in a huge field? Do you love gardening? Do you love going to the mountains and soaking in all the beauty on a hike? Do you love playing tag with your children or racing them to and fro in the yard? Do you love winding down in the evening after dinner with a walk?
Joyful movement is just that: moving your body in a way that brings you joy and wonder. Want to experience the feeling of pure awe? Next time you’re out in the garden, digging in the dirt, think about every movement your body is making. The gripping of the weed, the kneeling in the soil, the blowing off dirt from your sweaty forearm, the squinting in the sun, the pushing of the wheel barrow. The list goes on and on! Our bodies are fascinating and deserving of celebratory movement!
I am not against actively exercising and workout. I enjoy running just as much as the next marathon runner. What I ultimately want to convey is that there is a significant difference between punishing your body for the food you ate and exercising because it feels good. Before you slip on your running shoes, walk over to that weight rack, or suit up for the next swim, check in with yourself and be fearless in answering, “What is motivation here? Am I exercising because I think it makes me more loveable, beautiful, and worthy, or am I exercising because I know it makes me feel good and I’m already in love with my body so I want to celebrate it?”
Meczekalski, B., Katulski, K., Czyzyk, A., Podfigurna-Stopa, A., & Maciejewska-Jeske, M. (2014). Functional hypothalamic amenorrhea and its influence on women’s health. Journal of Endocrinological Investigation, 37(11), 1049-1056. doi:10.1007/s40618-014-0169-3
Tzu-Wei Lin, & Yu-Min Kuo. (2013). Exercise Benefits Brain Function: The Monoamine Connection. Brain Sciences (2076-3425), 3(1), 39–53. https://doi-org.bigbrother.logan.edu:2443/10.3390/brainsci3010039