How I took control of my obsession with exercise

Posted by Hope Virgo at 1:49 pm

Growing up I had always had a funny relationship with food, always trying out new diets, new exercise regimes and reading up on the best ways to get in shape. I remember growing up and being flooded with articles about body image. Even today I walked in to a cafe and the headline on the weekend paper was about losing 2 inches off your waist. Why has this become the norm?
I was always quite good at running, did quite a bit at school, and exercised a lot. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with me. Even when I began to attend CAMHs in Bristol and my mum monitored what I was eating and what exercise I did, I thought they were all trying to make me fat as they were jealous of how good I was at exercise so I carried on what I knew how to do best. I remember sitting in CAMHs and the doctor telling me my heart was going stop and I would die if I carried on this way. But I didn’t believe him. Even when I got a frantic phone call from my Mum when I was in town with my brother telling me my ECG results had come back and my heart was in a critical position I didn’t seem bothered. I had seen girls that I thought looked much thinner than me so why did I need to worry?
After years of dieting and exercise, months in CAMHs, I hit rock bottom. I was admitted to a mental health adolescent hospital. My hair thinning, my skin a yellowy colour, I stood in the entrance with my suitcase as my Mum dropped me off. For the first time in years, the anger disappeared, tears streamed down my face and I was absolutely terrified. I pleaded with Mum to let me come home and promised I would eat, but it was too late.
At the hospital, I had barely dropped my suitcase in my room when the hard work started; the snacks, the meals, the bed rest, the group work. Every day merged into one long battle to fight my anorexia and get out of hospital so I could start living my life. As the days in hospital turned quickly into months, my weight went up. At first I would find sneaky ways to exercise. Looking back I now realise how stupid this was, but at the time it felt normal. I used to tell myself to cooperate and that I would be able to easily lose the weight again. I used to lie in bed at night and fantasise about getting out so I could get skinny again.
For people with eating disorders, we all find different ways to lose weight, part of my obsession was with the exercise. I had got it into my head that I had to exercise whenever I ate in order to be thin. I had to completely reteach myself what normal exercise was. In hospital I was allowed to exercise when my BMI hit 17.5 – a 20 minute run a few times a week with one of the nurses. I lived for these moments in hospital and it definitely helped me to stay well.
Shortly after my 18th birthday, a year later, I was discharged from hospital. Although my weight was healthy I still felt like the physical side had changed too quickly and my mind wasn’t keeping up. At first I still counted calories, exercised all the time and got stressed when I had to eat out. But the fight did get easier as I fought it every day and I developed my coping strategies.
One of the hardest things since my coming out of hospital was the exercise. As I reflect back over the years since leaving hospital my relationship with food and exercise has definitely been extremely up and down. I remember my three years at university when I was definitely obsessed with exercise. I would go every day even if I had been out the night before. I trained for the London marathon when I was 20 and ran myself in to the ground with overtraining. Exercise was how I coped. I still didn’t like talking about things and when I had a bad day I would exercise. There were points where things happened and my coping mechanism was too increase my exercise. It was these points when I had to challenge myself to not overdo it, and I had to be disciplined.
In April 2014, I decided I wanted to see how well I really was. I wanted to see if I could train for a marathon without losing weight and becoming obsessed with exercise. Everyone around me thought this was stupid, and they spent the months before the marathon worrying constantly. But in April 2015 I completed the Brighton marathon in 3 hours 26 minutes. I could never had done this had I worked out too much, or not eaten enough. It was then that I had a realisation that food is fuel.
During my training someone said to me you wouldn’t choose not to put petrol in your car before a long journey so why would you choose not to eat before a journey. The hardest thing was stopping my running after the marathon. It wasn’t normal to keep up all the running, but I was terrified I would put on weight. I was terrified my metabolism had been confused during the marathon and I was so afraid of getting fat. It frustrated me that these feelings were still there and it scares me even today when I have them.
I know I still work out a lot, and I have to monitor my workouts and make sure that I am not getting obsessed. But for me it is an important part to my life. I know what triggers to look out for. I know that when I am becoming obsessed with exercise, I don’t give myself rest days and stop eating proper recovery food after going to the gym. But I do believe strongly that exercising in a controlled manor and making sure that you do not go over the line into obsession, can be a good thing for mental health. If I am tempted to push myself too far, if I feel fat one day or have a bad food day, I now tell someone!
If you had a headache you would tell someone so why is it any different with a mental health problem? And by talking about it, it means that I don’t have to show people I am not okay with not eating.
From my experience I know it is awful looking on at someone who is hurting themselves and being so unsure about what to do. I urge people to talk about it, try and not be afraid to open up. I know it is hard. It is hard as you don’t want people to judge and constantly watch you. But fighting the anorexia and the exercise obsession I had was one of the best decisions I ever made.

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