Monday, May 13, 2013

Mental Health Awareness Week 2013 - "Let's get (less) physical..."

Just one more mile, think of the calories you’ll burn.
Swim 10 more lengths, you know you’ll feel better.
Get out of bed earlier, your stomach will be perfect eventually if you squeeze in 200 sit ups.
Why are you getting the bus, it’s only 5 miles. Walk it Sarah.
You’re not cycling enough or hard enough or fast enough. Pedal.
Body pump, spin, pilates, yoga, boxercise……and every other class. Booked on. Attended.

These are just some of the reasons getting physical is not something that could have helped improve my mental health, in fact, the drive to keep on moving did the very opposite.

I'm (thankfully) living proof that collapsing in a gym is not classy, nor is it cool to not have the energy to peel myself off the floor of a 6am pilates class. While I'm at it, nearly drowning in front of three gorgeous lifeguards was not my finest hour. 

It’s what I think sets anorexia aside from many mental illnesses, getting active could in fact be the very thing that kills you. It could have quite easily become the thing which finished me off during the depths of my illness.

Two years into my recovery and I am still unsure of where I stand on getting physical.

The drive to burn calories is still there. The concept of ‘eating to exercise, not exercising to eat’ is still rather foreign to me. I can still hear my destructive inner voice convincing me that burning calories is the whole point, why on EARTH would I replace them? Silly Sarah. 

I haven’t stepped into a gym since starting treatment, I’ve been swimming once and couldn’t help but blast out five extra lengths. (I didn’t go back.) I booked on to an early morning Body Pump class a month back, but thought better of it. 

It's not all doom and gloom. I have ‘earned’ the privilege of starting an adult ballet class after a year of weight restoration (and pleading to my team!) I am confident dancing is more therapeutic than it is driven by my eating disorder. I rarely think about what I am ‘burning’ while practising at the barre – (the truth is I am trying to keep up with the steps and French words!) ‘Sarah’ DOES enjoy going and practising my pointe, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel guilty and lazy when I have to miss a class. I do.

That's me on the left, all cygneted up!
The same guilt I get for staying at home on a quite Sunday. The same guilt that still makes me feel bad for getting a lift instead of walking. All little things, like a walk in the hills or a stroll with friends which I can see could boost the mood of someone feeling low, but to me, there are still the thoughts back to ‘earning the food’ I eat. Anorexia taints this too.

Recently, it’s not the first thing I think. Instead, it can hit me mid walk or during an afternoon playing with my niece. Even cleaning my apartment for an hour. It’s the thought that I’m having a ‘better day’ or ‘feeling better about myself’ because I'm active, I'm being more energetic. That's great, I hear you say, you SHOULD feel better about yourself. Au contraire, I'm very aware it’s an anorexic lie lingering. I feel better because I am not being lazy.

It’s way more subtle than being an obsessed slave to a treadmill, it’s not a compulsion to burn calories any more  it’s the mind-set that an ‘active’ day helps justify the food I eat. It makes meal times a little easier. 
(for Ana)

People have suggested pilates and yoga to help my mindfulness, yes, that’s got to be a way a recovering anorexic can get ‘physical’ right? Honestly, I can still only see them as things I ‘HAVE TO’ do or ‘SHOULD DO’ if I want to make my body better. Still not the point, it’s not going to help my mental health to force myself to go, or feel lazy if I don’t.

It’s got to be an inner switch that gets flicked, the difference between exercising for enjoyment or exercising under Ana as some sort of deranged a personal trainer, I guess.

Don't get me started on the jealousy of people that can exercise and ACTUALLY enjoy it. I've always been sporty and seeing the rest of the world participate in physical exercise doesn't really help my self-esteem. 

I like to think this is work in progress, that I will find a way to enjoy getting physical, being active, enjoying a walk or maybe even a jog one day, but for now, I'm realistic about how far I have to go, I’ll keep using physical activity as my carrot to fuel my recovery journey. 

So, while I’m a huge advocate of getting physical, while I can see the many benefits of exercise and activity for so many, this year, I’ll  have to sit this one out and I hope others recovering from anorexia manage to take a break, and realise that getting physical in recovery possibly isn't the best idea. 

Right now, the only marathon I'm participating in is recovery. You up for it?

What do you think? Are eating disorders the only mental illnesses that don't always benefit from getting physical? How did you find the balance? 

To find out more about Mental Health Awareness Week 2013 and how being active can benefit Mental Health visit Mental Health Foundation's website.


Anonymous said...

I was diagnosed with anorexia about 12 years ago. At the time, I had dramatically reduced my daily intake of food and was undertaking daily runs which lasted approximately an hour each time (I kept on increasing the route that I took day by day). In hindsight, I think that if I had carried on that lifestyle much longer, I would not be here today. Thankfully, due to intervention, I stopped my running schedule and underwent treatment. When the treatment was coming to an end, I kept on thinking that I would soon be going for a run again (of a significantly shorter duration I might add). However, when the treatment ended and I was left to my own devices, I made the decision not to resume my former exercise habits. Since then, I have kept fit in different ways, such as cycling, walking, playing sports, etc. I think that it is important not to take an extreme position when it comes to exercising. Doing none or too much is not good for you.

Anonymous said...

Wow, this is a great post & very well rounded point of view.

I would consider myself a recovered anorexic who is currently struggling with relapsing thoughts. I'm keeping myself on the 'straight & narrow', as I am in a strong enough place, but the issue of exercise is such a tricky one for me also. On the one hand it improves my mood, gets me out of the house (otherwise I would just be living between home & work)and improves my aches and pains. However, it is so tempting once you see those Kcals to go that bit further, to push that bit harder....and then the critical inner voice comes back :-( and that inner voice starts to descend into all other aspects of life then not just the gym.

I would definitely urge those who are recovering & recovered to treat exercise with caution.

Anonymous said...

I agree that recovering from anorexia is not easy. Those in the stage of recovering from anorexia should definitely treat exercise with caution. When I had anorexia, I definitely did adopt an extreme position with regards to exercise, namely doing it obsessively and excessively in order to burn off calories. I suppose that you know that you have recovered when you can just undertake a physical activity, such as walking or running, for pleasure or to keep fit rather than for the ulterior motive of altering your weight.

Sarah Robertson said...

Thank you all for your comments.

I think everyone agrees that it is treating exercise and activity with caution and working towards a healthy relationship with physical activity when the time is right.

Keep strong.