When I chose recovery I awakened to the concept of intuitive exercise cycles. As in implementing phases of not following a training program, de-loading and listening to my body. It’s REALLY hard for athletes and avid gym goers to stop training. We are passionate about movement, seeing results and doing empowering things with the physical body.
Fitness doesn’t define who we are but it is a big part of us. Often athletes and fitness enthusiasts suffering with orthorexia also struggle with numbing themselves through over exercising and adopting a fitness centred identity. It’s challenging to shift into a place of detachment, and it takes time.
Regular exercise differs from training. Training to me is following a structured progressive program (including proper taper weeks and rest days) with the intention of obtaining specific results. Regular exercise is just as it sounds - exercising regularly but with less structure, strategy, volume and intensity.
5 years ago, I started learning how to take breaks from training as I began my orthorexia recovery journey. I had 2 lengthy rehab phases along the way. Sometimes even further along in the process of recovering my health, I would discover I had deep personal development to attend to. In these cases I would move into shorter intuitive exercise cycles whether that be a week or a month. As time went on I became more self compassionate with each intuitive exercise cycle I took. I always returned to training when I was ready and built up victories again.
I’ve worked with plenty of clients who have been resistant to tapering their training initially like I once was. A huge part of orthorexia and over-exercise recovery is detaching from who you perceive you are when you train vs who you perceive you are if you don’t. Detach from your identity as an athlete - get to know the layers of yourself beneath that label and learn how to love all parts of yourself.
In some cases, not having a program to follow triggers anxiety and I’d say in some situations, it’s helpful to follow a tapered program. In this case, I feel it’s optimal to work with a fitness professional such as myself who is certified in Functional Movement Systems (FMS) or a kinesiologist with expertise in corrective exercise. Your fitness professional should also know when to refer you to a physiotherapist.
When I ask my clients the questions that lead to the “why’s” behind their resistance to taking a break from training, many tell me they’re afraid to part with their physical strength and they don’t want to gain weight. I understand these concerns interpersonally as this was once my perspective too. However, when you are in the midst of an eating disorder, you will not be your strongest physically and it’s not the time to pursue sports performance or aesthetic goals.
It’s so important to stop resisting your reality in the process of recovery. The reality is, eating disorders are traumatic experiences and healing is more important than how much you lift. In choosing recovery, we have the opportunity to learn the nature of why the ego feels it must be defined by athleticism. We also learn that gaining a few pounds can be empowering and healing, and one of the greatest teachers of self acceptance. Our bodyweight is not constant and we can’t recover by restricting or pushing our bodies in the gym.
The best way to become stronger is to stop training like an athlete in times when your mental health needs to take the front seat. Strength is not solely represented in the physical body. The mind and soul have powerful strength potential. Such as the physical body, in order to see profound change with the energetic body, we must be consistent and dedicated with our self development work.
Our emotional wellbeing has a direct impact on our physical health and eating disorders come with an array of physical ailments. In many cases, there will be parts of recovery where the gym is not an option for awhile. I’m not saying you have to stop going to the gym forever (clearly, because I love the gym). Recovering from an eating disorder as an athlete requires setting yourself up for long term success so you can get back to doing what you love safely!
When it is time to ease back into the gym these points are key:
- Take rest days any time your body asks for one. If this means a few consecutive rest days, that’s OKAY! Recovery exercise protocol allows for this. This concept is new for many athletes but very important in healing
- Go for long walks outside and connect with nature in and beyond recovery
- Focus on corrective exercise. Use this as an opportunity to move better. Plus, I sense your body is restricted in various areas because those sneaky emotions play a role in your injuries and mobility issues (more on this another time)
- Work with a personal trainer who is FMS certified or a kinesiologist with a solid lifting background who can correct your form. This will help you become stronger in the long run. Even doing one session or a handful of sessions will benefit you greatly
- Start slowly resistance training 2-4 days a week depending on your situation. I know this is hard if you were used to going 5-7 days a week in the past. Start small and work your way back up. And in the long run, I advise you take rest days and don’t work up to “team no days off” again
- Lower your volume and intensity. Keep your work outs shorter with only a few basic exercises. Using the RPE scale 1-10, RPE 6 is a good intensity level to start with in many cases, and in some cases maybe even RPE 4-5. Change your perception. You’re not there for PRs in this phase of your life. It doesn’t mean you won’t get back there. Note, powerlifting and oly weightlifting rev up the central nervous system which you want to avoid at this phase. Higher reps and lighter weights or body weighted is much better suited to your needs when you’re recovering from something as severe as an eating disorder
- Avoid HIIT, plyo and sprints in recovery exercise protocol. Your adrenal glands and sympathetic nervous system have already suffered too much stress. If you do a minor amount of low intensity cardio for heart health or to simply move your body, this can be healthy. If cardio is a trigger for you in any way to overdo it, avoid it. If you go into cardio with the mentality of feeling like you “have to” or connect cardio to self punishment, don’t go there. If you are trying to restore your weight, avoid cardio. In regards to weight restoration, depending on how underweight you are you may have to hold off from the gym completely for awhile longer. If you have gained weight but still aren’t getting your period, hold off from cardio for the sake of your bone health for awhile
- Incorporate yoga into your routine. It’s a wonderful way to feel connected to yourself and great for those in the beginning phase of exploring their spiritual self
Incorporating intuitive exercise cycles helps my training so much, even beyond orthorexia recovery. I truly believe in order to unleash our athletic potential we must feel clear and connected to our inner selves.
I just finished an intuitive exercise cycle. This cycle was to accommodate healing past traumatic stress that I couldn’t fully process in the time it was happening. This stress effected me in many ways which included challenges with the physical body. Obviously there was no deadline or date set for this cycle to end because I was listening to my mind, body and soul. I stopped training in October so this was lengthy cycle. Note, I did not restrict my caloric intake because we don’t heal by messing around with our macros. I had a good understanding of my emotional and physical hunger cues but this intuitive exercise cycle really taught me about my spiritual hunger cues. I gained 5 lb over 5 months and my soul needed every ounce of it.
In between the various intuitive exercise cycles I’ve had, I was training and I’m proud of my accomplishments in the weight room. There is always a victory to be built in the gym again when you are holistically healthy and aligned to do so!
As an exercise coach, there are plenty of times where I follow intuitive exercise with clients. When clients are new to the gym, I screen their movement patterns then apply educated intuitive exercise pertaining to their score. We have to learn how to move well first and I like to get to know their flow and endurance before writing them a program. If someone has been ill or injured, we do intuitive exercise to ease back in. As a Pre/Post Natal Fitness Specialist, the first and third trimesters of a woman’s pregnancy require an intuitive approach. First trimester feeling ill is common. Third trimester there are many rapid changes and listening to the body is crucial. Interestingly enough, the surge of energy that comes in second trimester can result in athletic improvement in some cases.
I love helping my life coaching clients with their exercise programming in their ED recovery journeys, and feel grateful I can. As I mentioned, no structure at all can trigger anxiety in some cases. Plus athletes generally love structure and exercise has so many mental, emotional and spiritual health benefits when we don’t overdo it. I want them to exercise safely and for many of them, if left to their own devices they would over-exercise due to feeling lost on what to do. They are used to pushing themselves quite hard and this is new territory.
It’s so empowering for athletes who have battled EDs to feel good about training again. The athletes I’ve worked with include bodybuilders, powerlifters, and cross-fitters, and I am well versed in a variety of strength training methods. This is a safe space where an athlete can tell me “I missed day 3 last week” and I answer “I’m proud of you for honouring your body’s needs and staying dedicated to recovery.”
The ego will tell us we are defined by what we do, how much we have and other people’s opinions. This is a slippery slope for athletes recovering from orthorexia and over-exercising as many feel they must get back to the gym and start banging out results ASAP. Always remember, we don’t arrive in eating disorders overnight and healing takes time. The gym will always be there when you are ready to make a comeback. Comebacks are a lengthy process but oh so rewarding. This is why patience, self compassion and letting go of the ego’s grasp are so important.
If you want to learn more about how I help athletes recovering from eating disorders as a life coach and exercise coach, please reach out to me for a complimentary video consultation firstname.lastname@example.org