This post is Part 2 of my exercise addiction series on coping with overexercising, undereating, and intuitive movement in eating disorder recovery.
Read Part 1 here: “How I Overcame Exercise Addiction + Transitioned into Intuitive Movement”
MY STRUGGLE WITH ORTHOREXIA (+ EXERCISE ADDICTION)
One summer when I was in college, before driving to my internship, I was going to the gym every morning during the week. I lifted weights, did some cardio, and lived on a 1,200 calorie allowance. My food was so restricted, that I thought I could just have 2 soft boiled eggs and greens for breakfast and still support my workouts. Ummmm, no.
I THOUGHT I was healthy. I was strict paleo. I was low carb. I was grain free. I was gluten-free. I was dairy free. I was legume free. But I was NOT eating enough for my body… and these strict food rules that I “thought” were keeping me healthy, were backfiring.
There were so many times that I ate my entire 400 calorie breakfast and my 400 calorie lunch before 10 am because I was so hungry. Yet I wouldn’t let myself even “splurge” and put almond milk in my coffee (because it would have increased my calories and I didn’t want that). I was almost always fatigued by the time 4 pm came around. I remember only 2 occasions where I allowed myself a granola bar from the vending machine… only because I got to the point where I HAD to eat something. But I only allowed myself to eat half of it because the granola had too much sugar and it wasn’t paleo (looking back, it was actually a pretty healthy granola bar). I felt SO guilty, but I was hungrier than I’ve ever been in my entire life, so I ate it. Half of it. Because I couldn’t allow myself to eat the rest.
HOW DOES THIS MESS EVEN HAPPEN?
Looking back, I can easily see my madness, but I was so blinded by my goals that it didn’t matter what I actually felt. I only did what I thought I “should” do to be fit and healthy. But I got it all so wrong.
I was so hungry at times that I could barely think. I was OBSESSED with being fit and losing weight. I dropped my weight SEVERELY, but it was never enough. I always had to lose more. In some weird ways, I liked being skinny. I liked being hungry. And I like being underweight. BUT THIS WAS NOT OKAY.
THIS was me breaking my body and mind. THIS was me struggling with an eating disorder. THIS was me overtraining AND undereating because I thought that losing weight meant I would finally be able to accept my body and myself. Thankfully, I found Food Freedom, the way to heal my relationship with food!
IS IT ALWAYS BOTH: OVEREXERCISING + UNDEREATING?
Nope, not everyone who struggles with disordered eating suffers from exercise addiction… but from the women I’ve spoken to, I know many women do struggle with both. And there are a few ways to struggle with these complex eating disorder issues:
1. Undereating for your body in general (whether you’re working out or not, you’re under-fueling your body’s basic needs for a healthy mind and body).
2. Undereating for your activity level (not fueling your workouts). And I don’t mean skipping the protein shake after your workout. I mean you’re consistently undereating for the amount of exercise you’re doing.
The thing is, your body NEEDS food. And if you’re struggling with undereating and overexercising, your body needs MORE than what you’re giving it.
WHY DON’T WE EAT MORE (ENOUGH FOR OUR BODY)?
If we’re undereating and also interested in maintaining a fitness routine, we easily fall victim to thinking:
- We have to “earn” our calories.
- We have to eat less when we’re not working out.
- We have to stay in a calorie deficit to not gain weight.
- We have to deserve the right to rest or indulge.
ALL NOT TRUE.
The thing is, we become so interested in controlling our food and fitness, that we forget to ask ourselves how we feel about it all. We focus so much on what we THINK, that we forget to focus on how we FEEL. We forget to tune into our body and ask ourselves, am I okay with this?
Because if we took an honest step backward from our habits… got rid of the mirrors, social media, and selfies… and truly listened to our mental health, physical health, and emotional health… we would see CLEARLY how much we’re actually struggling! But because we’re so blinded by what we think is the healthy thing to do…
- We overexercise.
- We undereat.
- We get addicted to exercise.
- We struggle with eating disorders.
- We struggle with self-love.
WHY DO WE OVEREXERCISE?
In recovering from orthorexia, breaking my obsessive behaviors with exercise and food was extremely challenging. Why? Because it was an insanely hard habit to break. I’ve always been an “overachiever”. I could push myself harder and for longer than most people I knew. And that TOTALLY carried over to my relationship with fitness and food.
There are many reasons why we overexercise, so let’s break each one of them down.
1. BODY IMAGE
We overexercise (and restrict our food) because we want to change our body. We want to be fitter, stronger, smaller, and “more beautiful” in the eyes of the world. This type of thinking is based on our perceptions of:
- Beauty (from social media, magazines, models, actresses, etc.)
- Our own insecurities (the things we’ve always felt uncomfortable about)
- Fitness/Health (how we believe a fit/healthy person looks: muscle, abs, curves, butt, etc.)
2. WEIGHT LOSS
Along with changing our body image, we obviously change our body, more specifically, to lose weight. While not everyone exercises to change their body to get smaller, many women do. We associate weight loss with health, fitness, happiness, acceptance, and confidence… but there are issues with that. We can easily:
- Fall into disordered eating habits
- Exercise too much
- Eat too little for our activity level
- Obsess over our bodies
- Become too stressed
Many women also overexercise for athletic performance. We might be athletes or have specific athletic goals. We might be on sports teams, be competitive career athletes, or have athletic goals like running a marathon. Those kinds of goals can absolutely lead to overtraining if you’re not getting proper care from someone who can help monitor your health and wellness.
Read more about the dangers of overtraining in this article by Dr. Axe.
We also know that movement is healthy for us and that working out absolutely has TONS of benefits. It builds muscle, strengthens bones, regulates blood sugar, promotes a well-functioning metabolism, and helps ensure healthy hormone production (plus so much more). But at the same time, too much exercise has tons of consequences. When it comes to fitness, there’s a threshold where we benefit from just the right amount, but past that point can lead to…
- Excess mental and physical stress
- Metabolic issues
- Hormonal issues
Exercising too much absolutely had an impact on my hypothalamic amenorrhea (losing my period), which was a HUGE sign that I was overexercising and undereating.
When we have a goal or routine, it can be pretty hard to break it, once we’re determined… but we have to be honest with ourselves! We need to allow ourselves to release the control that’s holding us back from living our lives. We have tendencies to turn something that we’re super passionate about (our health) into an unhealthy obsession. But we don’t have to keep doing that! We can release control little by little until we find a balance that makes us happy AND healthy again.
We tell ourselves this line… “I exercise to manage my stress.” In a lot of ways, it’s true. BUT, most often, when we say that we are also saying this:
“I exercise to
manage my stress escape from my problems.”
Maybe you don’t believe me, maybe you’re hiding from the truth, or maybe you know it already… but it’s absolutely possible to overexercise because you’re literally running from your problems. But guess what? Exercise is a GREAT stress relief… but you can’t use it to ESCAPE from your problems. You ALSO have to deal with what’s really going on in other (healthy) ways if you want to have a positive relationship with food and fitness.
- Talk to your friends and family.
- Work with a health coach.
- Talk to a specialist. (The NEDA can help.)
- Work on self-reflection with self-care activities like journaling.
HOW DO YOU COPE WITH THE ANXIETY OF NOT EXERCISING + EATING MORE?
The question is, how do we HONOR our happiness and healthiness? How do we give ourselves proper…
… so that we can heal our relationship with food and fitness?
I didn’t allow myself to rest very often – and as a result, I kept getting injured. So, I had to REEVALUATE my relationship with fitness… and in that time I realized that my relationship with food AND with fitness was unhealthy. But honestly, that realization broke me into a million many pieces (healing is mentally HARD).
People don’t tell you, but overcoming an ED feels like you’re losing your identity when you’re going through it. Except you’re not. You’re actually FINDING YOURSELF because you’re not using fitness and food as a coverup. I made food and fitness my LIFE because I didn’t want to accept my body for what it was – I wanted to change it SO badly… but changing it didn’t lead to happiness…. it made me lose myself even further.
I coped with my anxiety because I knew what I wanted the most, Food Freedom.
If you want to learn more specifically about coping with anxiety, I have an entire post on how I coped with anxiety after orthorexia here.
HOW DO YOU LEARN SELF-ACCEPTANCE?
So, in healing from an unhealthy relationship with my food, fitness, and body image… I learned to go back to my little baby self (that person I still am) and LOVE MYSELF. I had to accept myself, I had to forgive myself, and I had to embrace my body as it was in every single moment of my life. Because it’s ME.
Go look at a baby picture of yourself. You’re being mean to that little person you see in the picture when you overexercise, restrict your food, and hate on your body. We’re all just looking for love on the inside – so it’s time you showed YOURSELF some love, acceptance, and forgiveness. It might be super strange, but it’s seriously the wake up call you might need! 🙂
TAKEAWAY: EAT MORE, EXERCISE LESS, [AND LOVE YOURSELF!]
If you’re struggling with overexercising and undereating, the obvious answer is to exercise less and eat more. But that’s not enough on its own… you also have to love yourself enough to follow through on those things! Because if you don’t love yourself enough to honor what your mind and body need, you won’t successfully be able to heal your relationship with food, fitness, and body image. It’s tough love, but it’s the honest truth.
Ready to start asking yourself the big questions? Get to the bottom of what’s really going on in this post.
If you missed part 1: “How I Overcame Exercise Addiction + Transitioned into Intuitive Movement“, definitely go back and read it! There, I break down:
- What exercise addiction actually is.
- My experience with compulsive exercise.
- Why exercise addiction happens.
- The 3 motives behind exercise addiction.
- 3 crucial reasons your body needs rest.
- 4 steps to stop overexercising.
- How to transition into intuitive exercise.
- How to nourish your body at the same time.