Growing up, exercise was a huge part of my childhood. I was the kid who played three sports competitively, five sports leisurely, and always needed to be on the go. Both my parents were college athletes so I have natural athleticism and coordination that allowed me to excel at just about every sport I tried. Soccer? Check. Basketball? Yep. Tennis. Game-set-match. Swimming? Well, I wasn’t fond of getting my hair wet but it was exercise and I was good at it so why not?
When I started to struggle with anorexia in eighth grade, my relationship with exercise drastically changed. Once a fun, social activity, exercise suddenly became an unhealthy, inflexible compulsion. It got to the point where I was exercising several hours a day and doing so not because I enjoyed it but strictly to burn calories. If I missed a workout or run, I’d feel horrible about myself and would restrict food to cope. I was eating so little then that I was constantly weak and tired—and still, I couldn’t stop exercising.
It took my treatment team putting their foot down to break the self-destructive cycle I’d slipped in to. I was pulled out of Travel soccer, I was banned from going on runs, and my parents made me keep my door open at all times so I couldn’t get away with obsessive crunches or jumping jacks behind their backs. In fact, the only exercise I was permitted to do was going on walks around my block—and considering it was late-November and I had very little insulation on my body, I wasn’t too keen on that idea.
I went from having a toxic relationship with exercise to no relationship at all—for five years! Sure, I went on leisurely walks and bike rides (when it wasn’t freezing of course), taught myself basic yoga, and played some casual games of basketful and tennis but that was the extent of it. I thought my days of being an athlete were behind me, just another thing my eating disorder had ruined forever. Then, in mid-2019, my family bought a membership to a local gym with an indoor track. I was in a much better place in my recovery and trusted myself to moderate my amount of activity, so I took to walking around it on days when it was too cold to be outside. After a short while, I progressed to jogging. I was awful at first—no surprise there, considering how long it had been since the last time I went on a run—but I kept at it, knowing that my cardio would improve in time. As that happened, I was able to run farther and longer. I signed up for tennis lessons in November and reclaimed my love for a favorite childhood sport. Recently, I’ve started biking to work and other local destinations as a way to move my body and reduce my carbon footprint.
This past year has taught me that exercise—in moderation—is truly amazing. In addition to getting me out of the house and keeping me in good physical health, I’ve noticed a significant improvement in my mental wellbeing. Exercise releases endorphins, which increase feelings of happiness and euphoria while simultaneously decreasing pain and stress. It turns out my eighth grade therapist was telling the truth when she said those walks around the block would improve my mood!
Exercise has also bettered my body image. For the years that followed my diagnosis with anorexia, I struggled with body dysmorphia and genuinely believed I was overweight despite all the facts and figures pointing to the opposite. Partly because I’ve been weight restored for so long and partly because I’m exercising more regularly and as a result building strength and endurance, my relationship with my body has become much kinder and accepting. There was a time in my life, not too long ago, when I never imagined that would be the case again but here we are!
That being said, I have to make a conscious effort to stay on top of my personality traits and triggers that could turn exercise into a compulsion again. This means sticking to a realistic schedule, listening to my body, and not pushing myself to run faster and work harder when I’m not feeling up for it. It means eating more to replenish the calories I’m burning, something that was initially very challenging but is gradually becoming second-nature. It means not feeling bummed or stressed if I miss a workout but instead understanding that that happens when you’re trying to lead a balanced life.
And that’s really what I keep circling back to: balance. The age-old saying that (almost) everything is good in moderation is one I strive to live by from the food I eat to the ratio I strike between work and relaxation to my newfound appreciation and participation in exercise. Of course it’s easier said than done but when you find that balance, I promise you’ll feel so much happier and healthier as a result.
*This post originally appeared on Julia’s personal blog. Check out her blog here.