Finding Balance in Eating and Exercise

Why is it so easy to go overboard and so hard to find the middle ground?

Posted Apr 24, 2012

Eating disorders often get triggered by a change in diet or exercise that’s healthy at first but goes too far. That’s what happened with my daughter, Lisa. Cutting out fried foods, going to the gym, Lisa felt good and then thought, “How much better will I feel cutting out more foods and exercise even more?” Moderation is a hard sell, never more than with overcoming eating disorders, as Lisa tells it here:

I’ve been fighting my eating disorders for nearly a decade, seen many treatment professionals, on both an inpatient and outpatient basis, and declared that I had had enough more times than I count, only to retreat into the alluring grip of anorexia or bulimia or both. At times I felt as if recovery was impossible, that I’d eventually succumb to my disease. Throughout the ups and downs, though, one phrase resonated. No matter where I sought help, or from whom, I received the same bit of advice: “The key is ‘balance’.” 

“Big deal,” I thought at first. “The key is balance. Easy enough, I got this!” But really, what is balance? No one told me exactly how to achieve it; there was no how-to or step-by-step guide, no lectures given or books to read. The answer, I learned, was to be found within. It’s different for everyone. There is no set definition or course to achieve balance, but as with recovery, you just know when you’ve got it. 

There are certain factors of my life and general well being I have been particularly focused on balancing. Besides the obvious – my relationship with food — the two big areas are being present in the world (i.e. being “there” in mind and body), and getting a grip on exercise.

Exercise is an important part of my life, but it isn’t my life. I have to keep reminding myself, that’s where the balance lies. I feel better physically and most importantly, mentally and emotionally, when I exert energy by some means on a daily basis. But, physical fitness served as a crutch to help me overcome bulimia. Did I replace bulimia with exercise? Is this just transferring addictions? Sometimes, yes, but again, the key is in that broad area called “balance.” I overdid it, but never got to the extent of classified exercise bulimia.

There are times I spend too long at the gym, or feel a little guilty about a less than satisfactory workout, but now I can step back and say “So I’m not going to be fired up at every workout, maybe my body isn’t feeling it today and that’s OK.“ Exercise is important, yes, but not a mindless compulsion. The difference is I enjoy it.

As a surprising bonus, my enthusiasm rubs off positively on others. Friends and family members like being around someone who has energy, and sometimes are encouraged to work some healthy exercise into their own lives. I had to let go of my personal trainer, but I still see him at the gym, and he still applauds my dedication and “killing it.” I believe that’s trainer code for impressive.

Besides finding balance with food and exercise, the third big area is less concrete but even more important: being present in the world outside my own body and head.

During the depths of my disorder, especially during my lengthy hospitalization, I was in a complete dissociated state. I might as well have been on heroin or LSD for I literally felt in a constant “tripped out” state. My surroundings seemed unreal, as if I were a cardboard cutout. I was simply “not there” in every sense.

My body might be there, but my mind was far away, ruminating on food, weight, calories, any topic related to my eating disorders. If I went out to eat, I fixated on safe menu items, such as salads without dressing, grilled fish tacos minus the tortilla, sushi without rice. Then I calculated the caloric content of each item. No matter how genuinely unsatisfying taste-wise (I can’t count the number of salads I’ve ordered that screamed for dressing), I followed the stringent rules of my own twisted perspective. 

I never had fun, felt I belonged, or achieved any sense of satisfaction. Whatever the gathering, I constantly separated from my companions by my obsessive tendencies and my black-and-white thinking. I couldn’t make one big turnaround and break free, though. I had to start with baby steps. One of the first steps was to sit at a family dinner, not necessarily to share a meal but just to practice engaging in conversation. Seems simple, but it was huge. 

In my next post, I’ll talk about some of the surprising changes in how food tastes, now that I am getting back to the real world.