Before we get into this, I want to be clear that I am not here to tell you “never exercise because it’s bad for you,” but rather to enlighten people on some of the effects it can have on your body when it becomes an unhealthy obsession. Additionally, I hope you will gain a little insight on how you can get back into fitness while in recovery of an eating disorder. I will preface all of this by saying that I personally have not struggled with an eating disorder, but had several transmen confide in me about the challenges they face with getting back into fitness after, or while having, an eating disorder. This article will be based on my education of the human body and research I have done on the topic.
Now for the good stuff…well, part one of the good stuff – Excessive Exercise
From my experience, some people have the assumption that eating disorders are only those who don’t eat or induce vomiting following meals, when in fact there are many people who walk the fine line of a healthy gym routine and genuine obsession. As a population that struggles with a different type of body dysphoria than the cisgender population, we transmen are at an inherently higher risk for compulsive over-exercising.
When we are not conscious of our excessive exercise we put our bodies at risk for some serious side effects, as our body is not equipped to burn significantly more calories than we are taking in. Not only will your body begin to fatigue, experience chronic pain, experience dehydration, but you will be at risk for several injuries. You risk for short-term injuries such as strains and sprains increase, as well as long-term problems ranging from heart issues to osteoporosis and degenerative arthritis.
What many do not understand is that, yes fitness and working out is good for you, but continuing to push your body when it is telling you it has had enough is not good. We all know the person who can’t walk because their knee pain is so bad, but continues to go to the gym daily. Taking a break, whether it is a couple days or a week, is okay!
Now don’t panic, I have gone to the gym with a sore body myself and I am not here to be a hypocrite. Luckily, there are some signs that experts have determined to be good indicators of a real problem. I don’t want to list every single one, but for the most part you may see excessive guilt if a workout is skipped, working out for hours at a time, exercising in unsafe conditions (i.e. dangerous weather), using exercise to compensate for food, or withdrawal effects.
Again, this is not a comprehensive list by any means and if you are concerned and want more resources I would gladly share the ones I have. As I mentioned previously, this should not deter friends from exercise but rather shine a light on some signs that it may be being used as an unhealthy lifestyle. Just like most things in our lives, when done in moderation and in a healthy manner exercise can truly make your life more enjoyable!
I want to switch gears in a way now and discuss how true food related eating disorders can impact your body, and how challenging it can be for our friends who are in recovery to recreate a healthy relationship with exercise and food.
For starters, those of us who medically transition, having an eating disorder can really throw off the balance of our hormone levels. Without the proper amount of calories, carbs and fats in our diets, our bodies experience a decrease in our testosterone levels and can become resistant to insulin, which gives us energy throughout the day.
As some may have already experienced, hair loss can be an issue as our transition progresses and with the addition of an eating disorder this will speed up the process, causing brittle hair and increased hair loss.
If you choose to begin hormone replacement therapy, your chances for heart disease and other cardiovascular issues increase substantially and eventually reach that of cisgender men. Add an eating disorder on top of that and you begin to experience decreased blood pressure and an even greater risk for heart failure.
None-the-less, this article is not to discuss eating disorders themselves, but rather to talk about incorporating fitness back into your life while in recovery from a previous eating disorder. Before I did that, I wanted to explain why it can affect us as transmen a little differently when food is involved in an unhealthy manner.
However, there is hope and that is exactly what is to come! Eating disorders are unfortunately a very common occurrence, but it is because of the strong individuals who overcame these that there are so many resources out there for living through recovery.
One of the best tips for finding balance between exercise and your recovery is being able to retrain your mind and let go of your previous beliefs that exercise is associated with weight loss. Exercise can be done as a way to live healthier and not just to lose weight, and that is something to tenderly remind yourself as you begin to exercise again.
It is very important to listen to your body! Just as you learn to stop eating when you are full, you will need to learn to stop exercising when your body is tired. If this is something that seems to be an area of difficulty, try allowing yourself a set time to be at the gym each time and do not allow yourself any longer.
Finally, be open with yourself about your relationship with exercise. If you begin to notice you are becoming hyper-focused on exercise as you may have been with food, reflect on what has and has not worked thus far. Recovery is not the same for everybody and it is a lifelong journey, so be gentle with yourself. If this isn’t the right time to incorporate exercise back into your life, that is okay! Your body has a way of keeping score and it will tell you when it is ready.