- Do you often feel guilty if you don’t make it to your gym class?
- Or go even when you are exhausted or not feeling well?
- Do you only feel okay about eating something you consider ‘bad’ if you know have been or are going to exercise later?
- Do you find it difficult to go out and socialize because it’s hard to find restaurants that have foods you allow yourself to eat?
- When you get stressed do you become more rigid with your exercise regime and/or what you are ‘allowed’ to eat?
- Do you feel like no matter how ‘well’ you eat or how often exercise it’s never enough? Are you seldom happy with the way you look, and often want to lose a few more kilos?
- Do you use food to help manage difficult emotions?
If you answered ‘yes’ to some or all of these questions, you are not alone! I hear these things from people every day – berating themselves sick because they have deviated from their diet or exercise regime. And I can’t help but think to myself ‘what’s with all the rules?’
For a long time people didn’t really know what eating disorders were. Most just assumed that if a person wasn’t eating, they were doing it for attention. And although there is a still a lot of stigma associated with eating disorders, people are starting to realize that they are about more than just an obsession with the way you look. For so many, eating disorders are a coping mechanism to help deal with the inevitable ups and downs of life. Disordered eating or eating disorders now present themselves in such varied ways that it can be hard to distinguish between a healthy lifestyle and something more serious.
Take Cross Fit, F45, Bikram Yoga or Body Sculpting. A lot of these forms of exercise have cult-like followings. People attend classes religiously and are praised for their ‘dedication’ and ‘commitment’ to living a ‘healthy’ life. But the truth is, for some people these ‘healthy’ lifestyles are less about enjoyment and more about rigid routines, guilt and obligation.
So how can you tell the difference—whether you just enjoy exercise, or are exercising compulsively and scrutinizing everything you put into your mouth?
Understand your motive:
Why are you doing what you are doing? Is it for fun and enjoyment, or is it because you feel you have to? Questioning your motivation is the best place to start in understanding the difference between a compulsion and something you just enjoy doing. A good way to think about it is, if somebody asked you not to exercise or eat a certain way for a day or two, would you be able to do it? Or would it make you feel anxious and overwhelmed?
If you are feeling unwell or tired, get stuck in a meeting or a friend invites you out for dinner at the last minute, are you able to change your plans without too much angst? Or do you become anxious, agitated or have difficulty focusing? I often encourage people to watch their reactions. When you get reactive, get curious! Any time we have an unusually strong reaction to something, it often means there is something going on that we aren’t consciously aware of. If not having complete control over your routine scares you, it’s worth asking yourself why.
Belief in a myth:
Sometimes we use food or exercise as a way of managing the way we feel. We are under the illusion that if we change the way we look we will be happier, more confident, have better relationships, etc. The truth is if you are anxious, struggle with low self-esteem or have difficulty accepting your body, no amount of exercise or ‘clean’ eating is going to fix that.
It’s easy to read this and think, “But what’s wrong with being healthy and taking care of your body?” And the answer is nothing! I am a big supporter of people living healthy and balanced lives. The problem is that some don’t know when or how to stop. They become preoccupied with how, when, how long and how often they ‘should’ be exercising or eating. This way of living can morph, without us even noticing, into what I refer to as a ‘socially acceptable eating disorder.’ It comes at the expense of sleep, rest, socializing, relationships, family and other important aspects of life. And because what you are doing appears healthy, well-meaning people will encourage these unhelpful behaviors by providing positive reinforcement. This is why it’s important that we stay curious—and not judgmental—about our own choices around food and exercise, and why we make them.
In a world full of perfectionists, high achievers and go-getters be compassionate with yourself. This is so underrated and yet so important if we are ever going learn to trust our instincts and pay attention to the messages our bodies are sending us. Imagine if you spoke to your best friend the way you speak to yourself? You would be mortified! The truth is, your body doesn’t work for you—it is you! So show it some love and appreciation. Stop bossing your body around all the time. Instead, tune in and listen to what it wants to do—you’ll be surprised by what it can teach you about exercise, food, health and balance!
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