Five Things to Look For to Safely Combine a Fitness Coach with an Eating Disorder Recovery Program
Recovery from binge eating disorder has been really hard for me. Even with a great recovery program and a great therapist, what I was taught about food, exercise, and our bodies for decades before keeps getting in the way. While intellectually my recovery program has been helping me, it is the daily practice of the program that actually helps reprogram your brain. I have found that this practice has become much easier now that I am back at CrossFit and in a community that is far less disordered about body, food, and exercise than our general population.
My experience with CrossFit and the communities that surround it may not be the same as yours. In fact, there have been some paleo diet programs that fueled disordered eating patterns for me. So, I want to share with you how my current CrossFit gym and coach function in a way that does not support disordered eating. Maybe it will help you know what a supportive environment is like because what we are used to are gyms based in shame, “good” and “bad” food or exercise, and personal punishment as a way to make you “better.”
Here are five things a gym or coach that is safe for a person in eating disorder recovery should be supportive of:
Listening to your body and encourage body wisdom. The “Am I Hungry?” program for recovery from binge eating says a key to recovery is to trust our body wisdom (Chapter 2 in Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating.) Most diet and fitness programs, and even many doctors, tell people that the way to be “healthy” is to not listen to your body. We are taught to eat by points, rules, food groups, time of day, time between meals, “good” and “bad” foods, and calorie counts rather than by listening to what our body needs. This creates dissociation from your body and increases disordered eating and habits that put your body at risk of illness or injury. If you learn not to trust your body, you will do things that are negative for your body because you feel compelled to follow rules. You cannot workout hard or get through a workout safely if you do not learn to listen to your body. You have to stop when you are in pain, rest when you need to, push yourself when you know you have more in you, and fuel your body daily so it can perform the movements you want it to. If you have a coach that pushes you too far, you have a bad coach. If you have a coach that does not call you out (with compassion, not shame) when you are not listening to your body, you have a bad coach. However, if you have a good coach, they teach you to listen to your body and know it so well that you take great care of it.
Knowing you are charge of your body rather than thinking you need to be controlled. In the “Am I Hungry?” program (which I use for recovery for binge eating), Dr. May says we do not need to be in control, we need to be in charge. Only I can truly know what is safe and right for me in fitness, diet, or lifestyle. My coach has seen me totally disregard what my body is telling me. For weeks I kept getting injured because I was coming to CrossFit and working out but not paying attention to sleep, mobility, or nutrition. (Meaning nutrition that works for my body.) She insisted that I take care of my body so that I can do what I love (CrossFit) and stop getting hurt. In the past I was taught that I could never be in charge of my own body, so I needed some program or doctor or expert to be in control for me. I was also told that pain (extreme pain, not normal muscle pain) and injury were the price of fitness and if I was really committed and really wanted to be thin, I would push through the pain. This creates disordered eating and increases injury. Through CrossFit I am unlearning this disordered thinking.
Accepting you just the way you are, no matter your size or fitness level. There is a whole section in the "Am I Hungry?" program about learning to accept your body the way it is. Too often we are taught that if we accept ourselves as we are, then we will never change (if change is something we want). Dr. May says, “Generally, just the opposite is true. Harsh and judgmental attitudes toward yourself ultimately drive your Overeating and Binge Eating Cycles. Accepting your body as it is right now allows you to make decisions about caring for yourself in the present moment, which is after all, the only moment you have any influence over.” No CrossFit coach (and I have belonged to three different gyms over time) has said I was not good enough or my body was worthless or bad because of it’s size or ability. A safe coach celebrates where you are, in that moment.
Letting your body tell you what and when you need to eat, rather than letting another person or system tell you when and what to eat. My coach sent us an email about food and performance and asked us to look at our food not as calories in and calories out. She suggested we ask these questions instead: “Will you really thrive? Will you feel great, or will you simply be a lighter version of yourself?” She encouraged us to look at food as fuel for helping our body do what we want it to do. Some days we may eat things that make us feel great the next day and have a great workout, and other days we may eat things that make us sluggish or not feel great. Either way is fine. As the "Am I Hungry?" program teaches, the point is that you are mindful about what you are eating and knowing if it contributes to the life that you want to live. Eating something that makes you feel sluggish and may result in a negative workout the next day might be totally right for you because you wanted to enjoy that food item at a special event with friends, or you are grieving a death in the family and certain foods feel calming to you. Then, maybe you eat differently other days because you want to increase your running pace, lift more, or be able to do more pull-ups. There is no shame associated with eating anything, which is another key part of the "Am I Hungry?" program.
Trust people and also advocate for yourself. If you feel scared of your coach or community and feel like you can not say that your shins are killing you, you are too tired, or you won’t follow food “rules” and won’t frame food as “good” and “bad”, then that coach or community is not a good fit for you. But, before you assume that because you feel scared the person really is unsafe, talk to them first!! The first time I told a coach I would not do a movement because I had neck pain or I was scared of a low-height box jump, I thought they would shame me or force me to do something I did not feel safe doing. Instead they gave me resources for help with my neck and looked at my mobility and form. For the box jumps, they let me do step-ups while also setting up box jump progressions that helped my brain and body get used to higher and higher boxes.
No gym or coach will be perfect, but if they can support you in the tenants above and are willing to hear how support for someone in eating disorder recovery is different than supporting people who do not have disordered eating and exercise patterns, then you will be in a pretty safe space.