I have been recovered from my eating disorder for over five years now. One of the most obvious differences between my recovered self and my ED self are my motivations to exercise during these periods of my life. I think this is important to articulate, because perhaps reflecting on your personal motivations for exercise could provide some insight on the health of your body image, and overall mental wellness.
When I was 17 I was restricting my eating to an extreme degree, purging whatever I did eat, and swimming on the high school team every day. I would also go from 11am (lunchtime in high school) to 5:30pm without eating more than a yogurt and then go to Zumba class. My only motivation for exercise was to "be skinny" and "burn calories" and obtain 34-24-34 measurements (runway model standards).
Looking back, it's a shame that I didn't have other, healthy, motivations to exercise. I remember my swim coach would recommend that I lift weights to build strength and improve race times, but I never stepped foot in the weight room because I didn't want to build muscle mass. I ended up going to the state competition for 100 backstroke and 200 IM and doing OK. I wonder how much I would have owned the pool if I had exercised for something other than appearance those days.
I recently read a study called Appearance vs. Health Motives for Exercise and for Weight Loss (2012). The study examines several reasons one might be motivated to exercise: fitness, mood, health, joy, tone, weight control, weight loss, etc. They found that those who exercise for appearance reasons over heath reasons are associated with body image concerns and the internalization of societal standards of attractiveness. There is also an association with restrained eating and exercising to loose weight as opposed to health reasons.
I think, based on my experience (I can't speak for everyone), that a signal of recovery is when your motivations for exercise shift back to health- this is a signal of self-compassion. Years after my eating disorder, I fully feel and experience this shift, and my body is more healthy and strong than ever.
What do I exercise for, as a woman who has reconnected with her food and body freedom?
To boost my mood
To break a negative state
To get outside
To become a better dancer
To make friends (I recently joined a running club for the social part)
To feel productive
And if I could pinpoint why I work out for appearance reasons, I work out for muscle tone. Funny how that is exactly what I used to avoid. This makes me want to point out, that it is possible to exercise for appearance and health reasons. If you're solely trying to loose weight, look skinny, or fit into society's mold of "beauty," you might want to step back and focus on that self-compassion. Maybe you could adjust your fitness goals to something related to health or happiness.
What about you? What is it like for you to exercise for appearance vs. health?