Reframing your relationship with exercise

Illustration of three people exercising
Betsy Siegal/Staff

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Content warning: eating disorders.

I used to have an extremely unhealthy relationship with exercise. During my freshman year at UC Berkeley, I battled the destructive binge-purge cycle of bulimia and overexercised as a method of purging. I would wake up early to go to the Recreational Sports Facility, rush back after classes and frequently force myself to run up and down fraternity row in the middle of the night to hit my goal number of steps for the day. I would exert my body to the point of nausea and exhaustion, turning exercise into a form of self-harm. I used exercise to punish myself for eating over my allotted daily calorie intake, weighing in at a “bad” number or for simply existing in a body that I believed “took up too much space.”

When I finally confronted the reality of the damage I was inflicting upon my physical and mental health, I embarked on the long and difficult, but highly rewarding, road to recovery. I ditched the Apple watch that counted the number of calories I burned and sent my Nike shoes into retirement. As I mended my relationship with food and the disordered thoughts that were involved, I slowly began to reintegrate exercise into my daily routine, aiming to reap the mind and body benefits without allowing my bulimia to creep back in again. This time, I made sure to cultivate a fitness routine that was sustainable, enjoyable and beyond superficial aesthetics. Here are three of the most valuable tips that personally helped me arrive at the healthy relationship I have with exercise today.

Shift your perspective on exercise

The benefits of exercise have been clinically proven time and time again, such as improved mood, bone and muscle health, blood-sugar levels and cognitive function. Exercise can be a wonderful tool to boost your overall well-being when used correctly and incorporated into your lifestyle as a sustainable habit. The key to adopting a positive mentality toward exercise is to see it as an enjoyable activity rather than a means to an end. When I was an active bulimic, I saw exercise as an insufferable chore I had to endure for being “bad” and eating a donut. Being in the gym felt like getting cooked alive in a pressure cooker. I was only there to exert myself strenuously on the treadmill or at the weight rack so that I could reach my target weight. During my period of recovery, I began to see exercise as a means of stress relief and an escape from the hustle and bustle of the day. I didn’t have to overexert myself or burn a certain number of calories for it to count as exercise; a simple walk outside was enough to feel the endorphins rushing through my system. Working out transformed into something I looked forward to — a time for myself to be alone and relieve my tension and anxiety.

Do workouts that you enjoy and make you feel good 

If you hate the stair climber or the lateral pulldown machine, do not force your body into it. Rather, try to find forms of movement that you do enjoy. If you prefer exercising with other people or in a group setting, look into classes offered at the RSF and other kinds of fitness studios. The best way to turn exercise into a sustainable habit is to make it fun and enjoyable, which also means finding exercises that boost your confidence and self-esteem. If you use cardio machines, avoid judging how “good” a workout was based on the number of calories burned; instead, focus on how you felt post-workout. For example, in recovery, I unearthed my hidden affinity toward dance, prompting me to ditch my unhealthy treadmill addiction and choose to choreograph and perform my own original dance routines. 

Let go of your judgment and perfectionist tendencies

It’s easy to beat ourselves up and believe that we are “weak” or “not doing enough” when we compare our bodies or physical abilities to that of other people. Just because the girl next to you in yoga class mastered the perfect eagle pose and you think you look like a sweaty, uncoordinated mess next to her doesn’t mean you are any less worthy or valid. The purpose of exercise shouldn’t be to execute each move perfectly and match the pace of those around you, but to unwind and build personal strength. As I reintegrated exercise back into my life, I tuned out the hubbub of diet culture dictating the food and frequency, intensity and time I had to spend at the gym for it to count as proper exercise. I personalized my routine to the intuitions of my body and took other people’s (unprofessional) opinions out of the equation. 

An unhealthy obsession with the gym once dominated my life because I approached the topic of exercise from all the wrong angles. On the road to recovery, I learned how to incorporate healthy movement back into my daily routine by choosing exercises that were pleasurable and made me feel good about myself, while also letting go of the self-imposed pressure to be perfect. Please remember that the tips listed above are by no means exhaustive and should not replace professional medical advice. Eating disorders are serious, life-threatening conditions. If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, please contact the Counseling and Psychological Services at the Tang Center at (510) 642-9494.

Contact Madeleine Lorie at [email protected].