I want to give you 5 tips for incorporating exercise in a healthy way during binge eating recovery and beyond. If you have a history of using exercise to purge or to try to control your weight in a way that is harmful to your body, you may feel confused about how to exercise now that you are focused on being free of the struggle with food. My goal is to help you learn to exercise in a way that benefits you, and doesn’t cause any physical, mental, or emotional harm.
[Before reading this, know that you should get your doctor’s approval for any exercise routines that you’re incorporating into your life.]
Tip 1: Ask yourself: Is my exercise an unhealthy compulsion or a healthy habit?
It’s important to make this distinction because even healthy habits have some similarities to unhealthy compulsions. When you develop a healthy habitual behavior, you will have urges to perform that behavior (for example, you feel compelled to brush your teeth). It’s okay to feel driven toward something that’s healthy for you, and this includes feeling driven toward exercise. I want you to look at your desire to exercise and ask yourself: Is my brain encouraging me toward something beneficial (as a healthy habit) or something harmful (as an unhealthy compulsion)?
You may find it difficult not to exercise, but that doesn’t always mean it’s an unhealthy compulsion. However, if you feel you absolutely have to exercise even when you are extremely tired, sick, or injured for example, then this is clearly in the territory of an unhealthy compulsion. Just do some self-observation and self-reflection and see if you can sense the difference when it comes to your own exercise. Here are some additional questions you can ask yourself to gain clarity:
Are my exercise patterns taking over my life?
Do my exercise patterns prevent me from doing other things that I want to do?
Does my exercise take up too much time that I’d rather be spending elsewhere?
Does my exercise take me away from my relationships or my family and friends too much?
Does thinking about exercise take up too much of my mental space?
If you feel like your exercise is an unhealthy compulsion, it doesn’t mean you have to completely give it up. It means you need to alter your routines and mindset to bring it back into the healthy-habit category.
Tip 2: Use exercise as just one tool in managing your health.
Exercise is just one single aspect of your overall health, and there are so many other things to consider. This is not to overwhelm you, but to help you reduce any overemphasis you may be putting on exercise. When you think about the other factors that can affect health and weight (for example: stress, sleep, relationships, career, eating, mood, environment), it makes you realize that you don’t need to obsess about any one factor, but instead work toward a balance.
There has been a pervasive cultural idea that weight results from an overly simplistic equation of calories in – calories out. When you operate on this assumption, it can make exercise seem vitally important as half of that equation. But it’s been proven by now that our bodies, weight, and metabolism are much more complex than that. Nevertheless, when you try to use exercise as a way to “burn calories” to try to control weight, you can get in a mental rut of calculating calories in/calories out, and this obsessive mindset takes any joy and stress-relief out of exercise.
However, when you stop using exercise to “offset” your eating, you can return it to its proper place in your life—as just one factor in maintaining overall health. And a healthy body can much more easily arrive at and maintain a weight that is natural and normal, and that weight is unique to each person.
Tip 3: Don’t use exercise to “compensate”
You may be in the habit of overexercising after binge eating or after eating what you think is too much. I don’t want you to criticize yourself for that, but it’s important to move away from using exercise as a compensatory behavior. Sometimes our bodies may naturally compensate, meaning that when we eat more, we may end up with some extra energy and a desire to move more, and that’s okay. But, when we’re not listening to our bodies, but instead to a harsh mindset that says we must “undo the damage of eating,” then we are going down a dangerous path.
You’ve likely trained yourself to have an urge to overexercise after overeating or binge eating, but you no longer have to follow that unhealthy urge. You can take a step back and realize you don’t have to be driven by those old habitual patterns.
Tip 4: Eat enough to support your exercise
You don’t need to do any obsessive tracking of your food intake, but if you are exercising, you can’t eat as if you’re not exercising. Exercise naturally increases hunger and our fuel requirements, and you never want to ignore that.
Don’t try to get by with as little food as possible; instead, give yourself plentiful proteins, healthy fats, and goods quality carbohydrates, as well as any other foods you enjoy. Do your best to nourish yourself to support whatever exercise routine you’re doing. Eating adequately is a big part of the Brain over Binge approach, and when you consider what eating adequately means to you, it’s important to take your exercise routine into account.
Tip 5: Don’t compare yourself to others
Try to find your own balance and what works for you. There is not only one right way when it comes to exercise, and the amount that works for you will depend on factors like age and lifestyle. Think about how different exercises, in different amounts and intensities, make you feel—without worrying about what other people are doing or promoting. It’s about tuning in to your own body and also knowing your own unique circumstances.
That being said, I think there are also some objective and common-sense standards of what is “too much” exercise. For example, in Brain over Binge, when I talk about how I exercised for three to seven hours on the days after binges, anyone would look at that and agree that is unhealthy and out of the range of normal. If your exercise amount is more of a gray area, try thinking about it as if someone you love was doing that amount of exercise. Would you think it is too much? Would you tell them that you believe it is unhealthy? While avoiding comparison, try to start treating yourself with the same compassion and kindness you would give to someone else. Engage in some honest self-observation and self-reflection when deciding what works for you, knowing that you can always adjust if necessary.
I hope these 5 tips will give the simple guidance you need to start using exercise as self-care, and not self-punishment.
If you want extra guidance as you learn to develop a healthy relationship with exercise, food, and weight, here are some resources for additional support:
Brain over Binge Course – Self-paced online lessons (plus an app) for only $18.99/month. Includes over 125 tracks to listen to that give you the information and answers you need as you end binge eating.
Group Coaching – Get help from coach Julie and support from others who are overcoming this habit. Includes a forum that is open 24/7, weekly group coaching calls, mindfulness resources, plus course access.
One-on-one Coaching – Book a 45-minute private session with coach Julie. She will help you change your thinking, uncover what is holding you back, and get on a path to complete freedom from food issues.