Steve Johnson

Content note: this article contains detailed discussion of eating disorders and eating disorder recovery

The questions I have probably got most after writing my column on anorexia are “How are you now?”, and “would you still say that you think about it?” And, a year on, I would say that it does get better but it’s still there and I think it may always be.

I can still hear the little voice in my head telling me not to eat something or telling me, “Right, next week, we’re going to start losing weight again.” But I know now that that’s not me. It’s just a part of my brain that isn’t quite right – it’s ill.

It appears at a time when I feel stress building, for example during exam season or when I face another important decision. But I have to remind myself how unhappy I was when I was in the true depths of anorexia, how much my life was affected and how it was stopping me from living the life I wanted.

“Exercise is good for your physical and mental health – but only if it is done in a healthy way when you are properly fuelled to do it.”

Something I still struggle with, which is under-discussed when it comes to the topic of eating disorders, is over-exercising. A person with an eating disorder generally doesn’t have a healthy relationship with exercise.

Exercise is used as yet another way of punishing your body for not being as skinny as it could be. It is entirely mentally driven. Anorexia would constantly say in my head: “It’s just mind over matter, keep going.”

Over-exercising was something I found particularly hard to let go of. I had grown up loving sport. I always played a lot of netball. I always liked running. But it became obsessive.

Anorexia would make my weak body feel guilty if I hadn’t done any exercise that day. As a rule, when you go for treatment of an eating disorder, exercise is removed from the picture. This really killed me inside; anorexia was taking one thing after another from the life that I had once loved so much.

But, I think, to truly recover, this was necessary. If you’re still running to burn off the extra calories that you’re being forced to eat in recovery, then your mind isn’t really getting betterYou will still be exhausted and you will still be obsessed with being a little bit skinnier. So, it needs to stop until you reach a weight where you can exercise because it is good for your body and you love it, not because you hate your body and you want it to change.

“Exercise is used as yet another way of punishing your body for not being as skinny as it could be.”

For me, I found the best way to do this was through team sports. If I exercised alone – either in the gym or by going for a run – I wasn’t good at making myself stop. There could sometimes never be a perceived end to my workout, because I could always push myself a little bit harder. The goal was not to beat another team or to get a faster race time than your team had got before – no, the goal was entirely selfish, to punish myself by getting a little bit skinnier, and that is the mind-set that needs to be fixed.


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So, I have found myself at Cambridge, slightly accidentally, immersed in the strange cult of being a rower. It provides everything that I need from fitness. It’s undeniably competitive, allowing my own competitive nature to be displayed in a less harmful way. It’s hard exercise – you burn lots of calories, but you physically cannot continue it without eating the same, and more, of these calories that you burn.

Throughout this term, at points when I thought anorexia might enter my mind once again, it was forced out because I knew that if it did allow it in, it would mean letting my boat down. It would mean letting down the eight other girls who had also worked so hard, because I couldn’t eat enough to keep up with them.

Exercise is good for your physical and mental health – but only if it is done in a healthy way when you are properly fuelled to do it. So, my passing piece of advice to anyone struggling would be to listen to the people who are there to help you, because you will not truly be able to do it by yourself. Stop the obsessive exercising, because you’re kidding yourself if you think that it’s doing you any good.

Believe in yourself – you will beat anorexia if you push it; there is no question about it. If you don’t think you can believe in yourself, then I assure you that somebody else does – you can do it, get the help that you need, and live your life again without anorexia.

If you have been affected by any of the content of this article, B-eat Eating disorders provides useful information and resources, as well as a helpline at 0808 801 0677. The Students’ Union Advice Service provides a more comprehensive list of support resources.

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