Just Five More Sets: The UK Lockdown and Eating Disorder-Related Exercise

It’s been over a week since the UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a nationwide lockdown for 3 weeks to combat the coronavirus. The lockdown rules dictate that you cannot leave your house unless it’s for medical need, exercise, caring for a vulnerable person, and food shopping (but as infrequently as possible.) In other words, stay at home.

The purpose of this lockdown is to slow the spread of the virus, reduce the number of deaths, and alleviate the strain that is on the hospitals. It’s a desperately needed measure and very overdue. However, while it is helping the physical health of the nation and the hospitals, it is putting an increasing pressure on peoples’ mental health and wellbeing. There has already been a great level of self-isolation for many people as they have been working from home since the end of February. Now, we have entered lockdown, the self-isolation has grown. Several people are living by themselves and in further isolation especially as the lockdown prevents us visiting other households so to not spread the virus. It is a necessary evil, but one which we should aim to develop more adaptive coping strategies to support our mental health.

I recently published a blog post on the effects of panic buying food on people with eating disorders. However, we may experience the negative impact of another aspect of eating disorders: exercise as a method of controlling weight.

People with eating disorders report excessively exercising as a way to appease the eating disorder, and maintain their weight, or to counterbalance any binges or overall calorie intake. They can develop an addiction, and will seek any way to fulfil this addiction. Often, that leads to a lot of secretive and extreme sessions of exercise. But, in a similar fashion to other addictions, the high of exercising would dissipate quicker and quicker so the intensity and duration is increased to retrieve that high again. It takes over your life, and you are desperate for the chance to exercise in peace.

The lockdown is the perfect situation for this, particularly if you live alone. Particularly with the influx of home workouts and a strong concentration on maintaining your weight loss on mainstream media. Particularly because one of the reasons we can get out is to exercise. Your need to exercise has now become a new normal. Your eating disorder can use this to their advantage. So to the average person, you look like someone just trying to get your lockdown frustration out with some exercise and fresh air. Excessive exercise can be easily concealed.

I know there has been times where my eating disorder has tried to get to the front of my brain. It has loaded my brain full of negative words that it knows will get to me. It will tell me I’m lazy, that I’m going to put on weight and lose my muscles, that I’ll look ugly, that I’m disappointing people by not showing how healthy and fit I am… And there’s been times where I have had to sit down and rethink why I exercise now. My reason to exercise now is very different to what it was when I was unwell.

I am a track and field athlete. I train to be fast. I run to get better. I lift heavy weights to get that rush of ‘wow this feels amazing that I can lift so much.’ I exercise to be a good athlete. While there still remains those thoughts of my eating disorder, I have been able to reestablish and relearn why I exercise. I no longer don’t do it for my eating disorder. I don’t do it to lose weight. To be as skinny as possible.

So, in this lockdown, ask yourself, why are you exercising? And really give yourself the time to think about. Because your eating disorder will try to do it for you. If you feel you are exercising in order to control your weight and size, or to curb your binges or even counteract them. If you feel you are exercising to establish some level of control in your life. Instead, think about exercise and how it supports the function of your body and mind. Restructure the motive behind exercising. Can yoga be a good way to stretch your muscles and wake up in the morning with an added bit of meditation? Can walking up and down the stairs get your legs pumping with blood again after sitting down in front of your computer if you’re studying and working from home? Your body needs a chance to get the blood pumping and to feel energised. A bit of exercise and activity will do that. When exercising, try to think about the strength needed in your legs to carry you from room to room and to go out and get things like food and medication. Try to think about the fresh air in your garden that you fill your lungs with and the energy that will allow your brain to keep working throughout your WFH environment. If you are exercising for the eating disorder then you will not be letting your body function.

But, only exercise in moderation.

A good way to exercise in moderation is to set a timer. Often in eating disorder-related exercise, it is common for the individual to over-exert themselves in terms of duration. Some people may exercise for hours at a time. Some people may not allow themselves to take breaks between sets of exercises. Now we have a lot of technology at our hands, it is easier to time things. I recommend setting up a timer for your exercise session; aiming to keep it around 30-60 minutes at the most. You are home right now so you are limited in what you can do. Most exercise you can complete at home can be done within 30 minutes without over-exertion. Keep your sets to around five at the most with reps up to twelve. And remember to have at least a minute to two minutes of recovery between sets. Keep it all timed, something you can stick to, and you may experience that feeling of control you would normally have from eating disorder-related exercise.

Many of our eating disorders will be rejoicing in the fact you are being forced to self-isolate and remain at home. Particularly if you live at home alone. As a result of self-isolation, no one will disturb you and you can exercise excessively without any interruptions or concern from others. If you live with people who are also now working from home, you may find you are staying up later or getting up earlier to exercise without anyone around. That was something I loved to do when my parents would work or go to bed early and I was able to exercise without any disturbances and without any judgement from others. Note to younger self: it’s not judgement, it’s legitimate concern that you have been exercising for hours and now can’t actually get up because it’s 11PM, you’re very hungry, tired, and spent. And you’re sixteen.

As hard as it is, if you want to exercise, try to not do it alone. This is when our advancements in technology become a handy tool in reducing levels of loneliness and isolation. It may be an option to join online classes on video call-type sites such as Zoom and Instagram Live/IGTV. Several yoga and fitness instructors do not have the resources they used to have and are now turning to online resources to make some money or encourage others to join. CAMYOGA is holding a variety of online yoga classes and these range from morning flows to pilates to strength and stretch and so on. However, if you don’t feel comfortable doing it in front of a group of strangers, video call your friend and do your circuits with them. Or join in on a class such as Lina Nielsen’s IGTV yoga classes. Now, more than ever, you have the dangerous temptation to use self-isolation to your eating disorder’s advantage, but exercising in a group or with someone will alleviate that temptation and help you to stick to safe levels of exercise.

But, ultimately, this is a virus, so if you are unwell then please, please relax and spend this time getting better. This chance to rest and stay at home can also offer you the opportunity to connect with others who are struggling with their mental health and their eating disorders. This is the time to nurture your health, both physical and mental. It’s a very, very busy world out there, and you’ve been given the chance to sit down, breathe, and get on with some hobbies or watch some TV. Sure, it’s not in the best circumstances, but seize the opportunity. Your body, right now, needs to be functioning and needs to be healthy. Your body needs you to rest and it needs you to focus on recovery. If you are required to stop or reduce your exercise per treatment guidance and advice, then take heed and put your feet up for a bit, or have your morning coffee on your balcony or garden step. Sleep, meditate, draw, knit, read, do whatever makes you feel focused but also feel at peace. Now is the time to reset.

And, finally, my note to the social media influencers and diet industry: please stop and think about what message you are projecting and onto what audience. This is the perfect opportunity for you to jump on that promo for diet teas, intense exercises, and methods to curb binges. Don’t do it. No one, and I mean no one, needs to hear the jokes about COVID-19 being the new Freshman-15. We don’t need to hear why we should be feeling guilty for having a bar of chocolate. It isn’t the time to fill peoples’ head with toxic language towards their bodies. Because several of us already have an inventory of toxicity filled to the brim with it anyway. People want to exercise to keep fit. People want to exercise to keep healthy. Yes, some people may want to lose some weight, but it is not your job to encourage that to dangerous levels, which may result in disordered eating. We exercise to stay safe, stay healthy and keep our bodies and minds functioning. While we are changing our attitudes towards why we exercise, you should too.

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If you have experience with an eating disorder, and are having anxieties and worries surrounding coronavirus, please click these links for some advice from Beat as well as support groups available. Check out this Friday’s The Sanctuary forum (3rd April) where I will be speaking as part of my role as an ambassador to offer advice and answer questions on recovering from an eating disorder and how to cope in the pandemic.

Here are some other resources to help you cope during this time.

NHS Every Mind Matters: Mental Wellbeing While Staying At Home

SAMH

Student Minds

Rethink Mental Illness: Temporary changes to the Mental Health Act

Mind

Information from Gov.uk for supporting your mental health during the outbreak.

And here’s some cool distractions:

Literally any Jenna Marbles video. Here’s a random one.

Scottish Wildlife Trust webcam where you can watch an osprey and her nest. She’s very cute and very noisy.

RSPB webcam for the nest of a Peregrine Falcon. They also have a feeder cam.

And, as always, stay at home, stay safe and wash your hands!

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