Why Not Exercising For 8 Years Was The Best Decision I Ever Made in Eating Disorder Recovery.
Tiffany Haug, MS, RDN, EDOC
Exercise was toxic, burdening.
Loaded with an irritating and compulsive sense of hope for a body different than my own. And not in the least bit joyful.
Flashback to summer breaks during my elementary school years when I was required to go running.
Each day at the designated running path I would often run past a curb (out of eyesight), and stand there waiting for 15 minutes, pinch my cheeks and jog back out—making it look like I was flushed from having actually run the designated distance.
Only as an adult did I realize how this experience was super traumatic for me.
Never was I asked if I wanted to go running. It was required—if I didn't, it would mean disobeying authority. I know this requirement was enforced with pure and loving intentions; nevertheless, it bore deep wounds in my mind and formed harmful neuropathways.
Because of all these things and more, when it came to exercise, I COULD NOT separate it from the mentality of dread. I couldn't separate it from the mindset of wanting to become smaller.
And if exercise wasn't going to "serve me" by changing my body, then WHAT was the point?
To me, there was none.
So I chose not to exercise.
For 8 years.
I was solid in my decision. I knew I was in recovery for the long haul. I knew that engaging in something like exercise that I could ONLY associate with becoming smaller was not going to allow me to thrive in recovery.
I also began to resent the mere idea of exercise...vocally. If you were to ask anyone from my undergraduate or master's program who in their classes most hated exercise? The answer would be me, without a doubt.
Though I rarely provided a context of why I hated exercise so much, my disdain was pretty clear, which was intentional. If anyone so much as suggested the need for me to start exercising, I would pretty much blacklist them. Teachers and classmates would try to "motivate me" to find an exercise I liked. At best this annoyed me, and at worst, I would resent and avoid these people at all costs.
With the extensive anatomy, physiology, and biochem education throughout my undergrad and master's degrees, I had a super good understanding of the physical benefits of moving the body; and yet I knew that for me— for Tiffany Haug—the mental consequences would far outweigh any physical benefits.
Enter my friendship with Emily Kee.
Emily is one of the humans that I adore most on this planet. She also happens to be a runner, marathoner, volleyball enthusiast, hiker (of the sort that goes on an extended hiking trip for her honeymoon).
I had never before clicked with an active person before, in my life.
To be honest I didn't think it was possible.
Totally new territory.
When I first became friends with Emily I had this strange compulsion to tell her I was up for anything except ever going on a run together (I see now how this probably came across a tad abrasive). She tells me a few years later this made her sad, but she appeared totally cool with it at the time.
The first year of our friendship, Emily did invite me to play volleyball with her friends twice, which I ended up being okay with. There were around 15 people on each side of the court at all times, so it required minimal moving (#win).
About a year and some change into our friendship, I began having heart issues that involved the arteries in my legs not being strong enough to pump blood from my lower extremities back to my upper extremities. This resulted in experiencing extremely uncomfortable lower extremity fluid and blood volume retention whenever I would stand more than 2 minutes at a time—super problematic considering my supervised practice rotations in my dietetic internship required standing for several hours each day.
It also affected the amount that I could pee. When it was really bad, I could hardly produce any pee at all. Not to mention it was also causing my lifelong eczema issues to get a lot worse, because my body wasn't able to carry oxygen to the areas that I got the worst skin reactions. My legs and feet would become SO swollen and beet, beet RED. I would take pictures of my legs and feet and send it to my parents, show it to my doctors, and my friend Emily. They were aghast.
It all came to a head at the end of my first year of grad school. I became so uncomfortable that I needed to find a solution. I soon learned that one form of physical therapy to help with my specific condition was to strengthen the arteries in my legs. Doing so could build up the artery strength to pump blood from my lower extremities back to my upper extremities.
I also learned that running would be an effective way to strengthen those leg arteries.
I micro-analyzed and mulled over this for weeks. Could running be a part of my life without it being an absolute misery? The last time I had run consistently was more than a decade ago. How could I do something on a semi-consistent basis that I had so much trauma tied to?
Then there came a day when I woke up, and was ready. I had this bizarre sense of excitement over the prospect of moving my body. I legit wanted to. And it wasn't to change my appearance.
I recognized what an actual blessing this was. I was given a condition that was so miserable that my draw towards wanting to engage in movement was 100% motivated by a non-weight focus. ALL I WANTED was to able to stand for more than 2 minutes without all the blood pooling to my lower extremities and staying there. I texted my friend Emily and asked if she would start running with me. She did. I started with super slow and short distances.
May I tell you something amazing about my friend Emily?
Every time she ran with me she would keep my pace (even though she is a way faster runner than I am). Despite the fact that I've never really run long distances, she started calling me a runner. In Emily's words, "You know this means you're a runner now." Those words were not the least bit triggering to me, but were super empowering. Two years ago for my birthday, Emily bought me a shirt with an outline of the state of Wisconsin (where she lives) with the words "runner" on the inside.
I purchased my first pair of legit running shoes. I began running short distances every now and then. After several months, the arteries in my legs started getting stronger. It was incredibly enjoyable because it took away the pain of the blood pooling. I dearly love running now, but I love a lot of other things that involve moving my body too. I enjoy hiking, I LOVE yoga, when it's warm enough, I like swimming, and I like to Rest.
Although I consider myself be to fully recovered from my eating disorder for almost a decade, I am conscious to keep my runs short and not push to a place where it isn't fun. Looking back, I am super grateful that I had the self-permission to not exercise for those years.
Thank you, to me, for allowing myself to not exercise for 8 years. Thank you, to me, for knowing that not wanting to exercise was a good enough reason to stay away from it. That was incredibly wise.
And though I love moving my body now, I totally believe that taking those years to not exercise was the best decision I ever made in eating disorder recovery. Because it gave me the NECESSARY time to approach movement from a place of enjoyment.
And that was worth 8 years of my life.
Tiffany Haug, MS, RDN, EDOC is a Master's level Dietitian in San Diego who specializes in helping individuals with Eating Disorders make peace with food and their bodies. Tiffany knows that working through recovery can be incredibly hard. Being herself recovered for almost a decade, she is incredibly honored to now be able to give back by supporting her clients along this challenging, but so-very-worth-it journey. In addition to being an Eating Disorder Dietitian, Tiffany serves as the Education Chair for the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals (IAEDP) San Diego Chapter and works as a Pediatric Dietitian at Rady Children's Hospital in San Diego. Learn more about Tiffany here.