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Exercise and Emotions: Fighting Fat Talk & Reframing Negative Thoughts While Enjoying Fitness

Posted Feb 24 2013 3:12pm

I have to say that the Running and Recovery posts have been some of my favorite posts to write.

Throughout my recovery, I kept hoping bloggers would address the issue of exercise and fitness while regaining strength (physical and emotional) from an eating disorder, but I never found the inspiration I was searching for.

I really hope that these posts are helpful and you have a particular question about fitness and how it relates to recovery, please leave a comment or send me an email! I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Today’s post is going to talk about exercise and emotions.  Even for those people who aren’t in recovery from an eating disorder, exercise can be an emotional thing especially if you suffer from depression, poor body image, low self-esteem, and/or are just starting to get in shape.

I firmly believe our bodies hold our emotions, stress, and tension, as well as memories. Those with trauma histories can often easily identify with this.  Even those who don’t have trauma as a part of their past can understand how emotions can stay stuck in certain parts of the body.

Examples: Butterflies or an anxious, fluttering feeling in your stomach when nervous, tension headaches, shoulder pain when really stressed

If you exercise, you are going to experience some kind of emotion, good or not-so-good. The thing to remember is that you can absolutely change your emotional relationship to fitness.

Personally, my relationship with exercise has fluctuated between obsessive to avoidant and everything in between.  It’s a great feeling when you exercise and feel proud, strong, healthy, and vibrant.  However, for a lot of people, especially those who have body image or self-esteem issues, exercise can bring up feelings of worthlessness, body distortion, frustration, depression, and even anger.

The very first run I did as part of the Couch to 5k program back on December 1, 2012 was a prime example of this.  Running did not make me feel proud or happy.  It made me angry, I mean seething. 

My whole body tightened up and as I ran on the sidewalk I just kept imagining what the people in the cars driving by were thinking of me.

“She’s out of shape.”

“She’s really not very fast.”

“She’s ugly.”

“What terrible form.” 

The anger I was experiencing was definitely a result of deeply ingrained negative thoughts and memories about myself and my body.  I like to view bodies as snow globes, and the snow inside is like our emotions.  When you shake up a snow globe (or exercise), all those particles (or emotions) get stirred up.  If you have a not-so-great relationship with your body, then moving it, feeling yourself actually inhabit your body is obviously going to bring up some thoughts and emotions that you’ve been suppressing.

Feeling angry was my body’s way of releasing some of those pent up memories of all the hurtful comments I have heard about my body or looks over the years. 

Whenever I’m driving and see someone running, my first thought has always been, That’s really awesome that they’re out there running.  

I don’t ever think the thoughts that I attributed to the drivers that passed me, so why should I think that other people are thinking poorly of me? They probably aren’t even giving me a second thought! And if they are by chance thinking something unsavory, there’s nothing I can do about it and that’s their issue, not mine.

The more I questioned these erroneous thoughts about what I thought I couldn’t do (i.e. be a runner, be in shape, etc.), the more I began to gain confidence in my exercise routine (and in my personal life).

Thoughts like, I’m too fat to exercise and I’m out of shape, I shouldn’t be out here trying to pound the pavement and making a fool of myself in the process kept coming in.

You don’t get in shape by avoiding exercise.  If you want to get better at anything, you have to get out there and do it! Practice makes progress! This is what I told myself repeatedly, every time I laced up and went out for a run.  At least I’m out there practicing.  Every time I run, I’m getting closer to my fitness goals. 

And what are some of these goals? I really had to shift my mindset around exercise and not do it for weight loss or to change my body in any drastic way.  My biggest goals are to feel strong in my body, when I’m exercising and when I’m not, to increase lung capacity (because I have very weak lungs), and to feel proud of myself and my body.

My eating disorder gave me a lot of things, but confidence was never one of them.  

A healthy exercise routine that is not obsessive gives me a lot of confidence, because I like being able to say “I went for a run today” when someone asks what I’ve done. I love that feeling when I step inside my apartment, all sweaty and sticky, and collapse on the couch to catch my breath.  It’s a glorious feeling and I’m bursting with pride at those moments, because I earned that confidence!

Starting an exercise routine brought up mixed emotions.  One concern was whether or not I’d get obsessive about it or whether I would get discouraged and just quit altogether.

I know this wisdom applies to a lot of things, but I found it particularly helpful for exercise.  It takes some courage to go from not exercising to starting a fitness routine.  I really wanted to increase my fitness levels and for me, that’s not eating disordered.  I want to be fit and healthy, I want to be strong, and yes, I also want to love the way my body looks.  I don’t see anything wrong with that as long as I respect my body (that means taking walking breaks on runs, not running if I feel really worn out, eating when I’m hungry, stopping when I’m full, and taking care of myself so I don’t get sick).

*Please* discuss changes in exercise with your doctor, especially if you are in recovery!! I’m not a doctor, so I’m relaying my experiences, not medical advice! 

When you start to experience negative thoughts about your body, fitness level, and overall ability to “do this,” start questioning them and talking back.  Sure it sounds basic and maybe a little silly, but our brains come up with a whole lot of garbage that shouldn’t be taken seriously.  I worked with a therapist for about 8 months who also had a PhD in Neuroscience, and one of the most valuable things I learned from her was that thoughts are akin to waste products of cells. A favorite quote from her: “You have no more reason to trust what comes out of your head than you do your ass.” Blunt but true :)

My mind can do a lot of great things, but it also has a lot of pathways full of negative, unhelpful, and self-destructive thoughts.  The great thing is that I can create new pathways, and the more I strengthen the positive thoughts and self-talk, the more my brain will default to that setting instead.  It takes work but it’s possible and worth it!

This one is really important.  Poor/distorted body image is often connected to underlying thoughts about our self-worth.  When I engage in Fat Talk with myself or when I have really terrible thoughts about my body, I recognize that most likely, the issue isn’t my body at all, but some underlying emotion or issue that remains unresolved.

One area of my body that I’ve always been unhappy with is my stomach, and it’s caused a lot of confidence and self-esteem issues for me, especially in high school and college.  When I get really self-conscious about not having Eva Longoria’s abs, I have to ask myself what’s really going on.  I know that when I focus on a certain area of my body and start calling myself “fat,” I’m really using it as a distraction from something else. Maybe I’m feeling lonely or stressed out, maybe I’m ruminating on a comment someone made that pushed a button, or maybe I was triggered by something and I haven’t worked through it.

When I was in treatment for my eating disorder, I noticed my body image got really terrible after meals and tough therapy sessions.  That’s not surprising, but what I had to remember was that there was nothing about one meal or one meeting with a therapist that changed anything about my body.  What changed was my feelings, and feelings can often make us feel full and uncomfortable.

Now, when I start to get body-conscious, especially around other people, I tell myself this: “My friends don’t hang out with me because of my clothing size, how much I weigh, or what my body looks like.  They care about me as a person not a body.  I have a hell of a lot to offer people and none of it has to do with how my body looks.”

I enjoy the time I spend exercising because I like the way it feels, and I really had to work at making fitness fun and enjoying it.  

I continue to make fitness fun by trying new workouts, running in different places, creating playlists that are motivating, make me feel good, & keep me going in my workouts, wearing cute outfits (call it shallow but if I think I look good, I’m more likely to get out there and exercise so it’s effective for me), and thinking of how great I feel after a workout.

Confidence is earned and while many of my workouts are still emotional struggles, I know that in the end I’ve always felt better about myself, my body, and my future. 

Helpful Articles: Emotions in Motion  (Yoga Journal), The Emotions Behind Specific Body Aches  (Care2)

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