For people with a history of disordered eating, low self-worth, trauma or adversity, exercise can be a source of anxiety, stress and shame. It is well established that exercise is good for us, and these messages are often promoted by health professionals, weight loss advertising and public health campaigns. For some people, physical activity is something that they enjoy and are motivated to do so for the benefits they experience. However, for others, it can be a bit more complicated.
Often people with a history of disordered eating have used exercise in an attempt to lose weight or to compensate for food they have eaten. Underpinning this behaviour is frequently a mindset of punishment and shame. When we approach exercise in this way it can be an unpleasant and overwhelming experience that can negatively impact our relationship with ourselves and our bodies. Unfortunately, much of the culture around exercise supports this mindset with language such as “push through” or “feel the burn”. You only have to look at boot camp style workouts where instructors are yelling at participants in an effort to motivate them to realise that this mindset is embedded in mainstream fitness and wellness industries. For those with a trauma history and low self-worth this approach is at best unhelpful and at worst harmful and re-traumatising, further complicating our relationship with exercise.
Our relationship to physical exercise can also become tainted by guilt if we feel it is something we should be doing and yet we believe we are not engaging in it regularly enough. Part of the difficulty here is the feeling that we should be exercising. When we feel we should exercise we are being driven by introjected motivation. This is a type of motivation that drives us to engage in behaviours to avoid guilt and shame. We are unlikely to enjoy the activity if driven by introjected motivation and are less likely to maintain the behaviour ongoingly. Introjected motivation is a very ineffective form of motivation and can compound the negative self-worth of people struggling with the impacts of trauma, disordered eating and substance issues who may be already struggling to trust themselves.
A far more effective strategy is to connect with intrinsic motivation which is the type of motivation that is at play when we truly enjoy what we are doing. When we move in a way that feels good to us and our bodies, we are experiencing intrinsic motivation and are much more likely to continue to engage with the activity. Movement stemming from intrinsic motivation cultivates feelings of happiness, curiosity, and satisfaction and is a very different experience to the guilt, shame and anxiety that may come from introjected motivation. When we are driven by intrinsic motivation, we experience the pleasure of movement as well as the reparative potential of connecting with and nurturing ourselves. Joyful movement provides us with the simple freedom to move in the ways that feel best for our own unique bodies.
There are many ways to find joyful movement and the most important thing is to find what works for you. It can be helpful to focus on approaching movement from a space of curiosity and listening to your body as best you can. It can take time to begin to let go of the feeling that you “should” be exercising that robs the joy from movement. Give different types of movement a go. Dancing, hiking, yoga, or fun classes are a great place to start. It can also be helpful to think about the kind of things you enjoyed as a child before society laid on pressure around exercise. See if you can reconnect with that sense of fun and playfulness. If your body wants to stop, remember that you can always stop. Honouring your bodies signals that it has had enough is just as important as moving in the first place. Finding joyful movement and learning to listen to and respect our bodies signals is a valuable process in recovery from disordered eating, low self-worth and trauma or adversity.
If you have used exercise in the past as a way to compensate for food that you have eaten or as a form of punishment, it might be important to have a break from exercise at the beginning of your recovery journey if exercise may be a trigger for you. It will be important that you have support from a therapist who is experienced working with eating disorders and trauma and has an understanding of the Health at Every Size® (HAES) approach.
You might find working with a trainer that promotes joyful movement and a HEAS approach helpful so that you can be supported to find the movement you love while beginning to recognise and respond to your bodies signals about what does and doesn’t feel right to you as well when to stop and rest.
If you feel like you would like some support in discovering joyful movement Diverse Personal Training are an excellent organisation that uses an evidence-based approach to help people develop a passion for exercise based on self-care and compassion. They do this by taking a body positive and HAES approach to fitness and offer online and face to face group sessions in Monbulk for women and non-binary people as well as one on one personal training. Diverse personal training is a great place to start your journey of joyful movement and if you would like to get a feel for how they work the video below is a great place to start or you can check out their website here https://www.diversepersonaltraining.net/