The Balancing Act: Eating Disorders and Fitness

Content warning: This blog references eating disorders and suicide

Here we are, at the end of yet another January, the end of yet another month where we’re exposed to countless adverts about fitness plans, calorie counting and intermittent fasting.

For many, it’s annoying being told to exercise and change our bodies to fit in with a perceived societal ideal. For some, this tirade of diet culture is life threatening.

I was sectioned 20 years ago for anorexia. Only 2 years later I attempted to take my own life due to the powerlessness I felt over my binge eating disorder. I’ve been dangerously underweight due to one eating disorder and suicidal due to another. For another decade or more bulimia permeated my daily life. I’ve seen the darkest side to eating disorders, witnessing near death cases and experiencing my own. I have experienced psychotic hallucinations due to low body weight.

Eating disorders and food related mental health conditions are one of the most commonly diagnosed mental illness in the UK. The charity BEAT Eating Disorders estimate 1.25 million people in the UK are affected by eating disorders. While the majority of people living with eating disorders are women, men make up around 25% of those diagnoses. And the number of young people with eating disorders in England ending up in hospital rose sharply during the pandemic. In data released by NHS Digital in 2021, worrying statistics revealed the number of under 20s admitted to hospital for eating disorders from 2020 to 2021 topped 3,200 – nearly 50% higher than the previous year.

 More Eating Disorders research is necessary.

Calorie counting and measurements, weights and obsession with weight loss ruled most of my life. I measured my value, my identity and life by measurements. Freeing myself from those shackles is a daily choice and one I’m still learning new tools to do effectively.

Recently I’ve read a lot about how eating disorders might be a form of attachment disorder, linked to recent work into attachment theory. The ideas hold weight with me, if you’ll excuse the pun.

Another part of my ongoing journey of recovery has been exercise. Moving our bodies is proven to be beneficial to our mental health, within reason. Raising money for charity with fundraising races has been good for me. According to Mayo Clinic regular exercise helps ease depression and anxiety symptoms by releasing endorphins and other natural chemicals that enhance a sense of well-being.

When it comes to exercising and fitness when in recovery from eating disorders, it’s all about balance, but nothing about scales.

But during the month of January and as we approach summer once again, the message that pops up incessantly on social media feeds and devices, on television, radio and billboards, is to lose weight. This is the same message that nearly killed me.

At Christmas, I bought a new phone, and with it I was suddenly given the option to receive alerts for a Fitness app to tell me how many calories I’d burned that day. This gave rise to increased anxiety and focus on a compulsion to measure myself I thought I’d unlearned.

My new phone, just like many other devices not marketed for their health-focused features tend to have step counting, calorie burn and exercise tracking built-in as a standard. This means even if you haven’t bought a device in order to purposefully track your activity, data about your body is often only a few swipes away. 

Worryingly, other studies suggest that calorie counting apps can trigger or exacerbate eating disorders.

Dr Carolyn Plateau has studied the effect fitness trackers and health-focused apps can have. According to Dr Plateau’s research, higher levels of body dissatisfaction and disordered eating were identified among those who use tracking tools, compared to those who do not. In addition, many patients with eating disorders report using calorie counting apps with these tools having a negative impact on their eating disorder symptoms, as Dr Plateau has described…

“Our findings were interesting as they indicated that those who did track their activity or food intake showed higher levels of both disordered eating and exercise than those who did not. Higher levels of purging behaviour (exercise to control or modify weight or shape) was found among the tracking group.” 

So as January ends and we’re given a couple of months before marketing campaigns for beach bodies begin with a vengeance, it’s time to reflect on the changes needed for a truly healthier approach to health-focused apps. More research is needed on their effects. But for now, the advice to those of us in recovery from eating disorders who are struggling with fitness trackers and health-focused apps on our devices? Consciously choose to opt out. Switch off the notifications, delete the apps, turn off calorie counters and focus on general mental well-being and enjoying our bodies.

Our bodies keep us alive, even if sometimes our minds feel differently. My heart, lungs and all my vital organs want me to stay alive to enjoy this fabulous playground of a life I’m living in this awesome plaything called my body. Enjoying what my body can do and all the life-affirming experiences within it for as long as possible has nothing to do with calorie counts, weights, shapes or size. It’s got everything to do with the JOY of enjoyment.

If you need help or more information on eating disorders please contact The UK’s Eating Disorder Charity – Beat (beateatingdisorders.org.uk)

And you can read about MQ’s research into eating disorders here.

The post The Balancing Act: Eating Disorders and Fitness first appeared on MQ Mental Health Research.

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