Updated: Nov 3
3 things I learned when I tried it!
Please enjoy this month’s guest article by Stefanie Bonastia, below!
Exercise and I didn’t start out as friends.
As a child, I’d never really been a natural athlete and had no template for exercise as anything other than a means to losing weight. My relationship to it ranged from resistant to obligatory to obsessive, depending on where on the disordered eating spectrum I fell at any given time. “Joyful” was not terminology that made sense to me when it came to movement.
During my 30s, I was in another co-dependent relationship with exercise whereby I was using it to compensate for binges and to foster feelings of inner morality. I prided myself on how far and how often I could run. If I didn’t work out X times per week, I felt like I was falling behind. The mental exhaustion of fitting in workouts between work, kids’ nap schedules, and babysitting availability only rivaled the mental exhaustion of tracking my caloric equations.
The sum total of this exhaustion led me to what I would come to understand as Intuitive Eating, although this wasn’t language I knew at the time. The tightrope walk of controlling my body was breaking me, and I started learning more about the relationship between restricting and binge eating. Since part of my restriction was compensatory exercise, I also began to consider that I might have to pull away from it entirely to change its role in my life.
In 2019, as I began my process of eating disorder recovery, I stopped exercising cold turkey.
The impact of this hiatus from exercise fundamentally changed the way I relate to my body, movement, and myself, through this very day.
Shift #1: Not exercising gave me room to attune to my baseline signals of hunger and fullness.
Different forms of exercise had created wild hunger swings in my body that felt unpredictable and unregulated. I remember coming home from a workout and feeling okay, and then experiencing sudden bursts of extreme hunger that felt bottomless. A body in the throes of disordered eating is already sensitive to hunger; adding extra cortisol surges (via cardiovascular exercise) to the mix gave my body an exponential experience of that hunger. Fullness was also harder to feel in the throes of those chaotic surges.
When I stopped exercising, I noticed that my body’s signals gradually started to feel more stable. Hunger came on more slowly, as if it was speaking to me with clarity instead of whiplash. Over that year, I had time to experience my body’s baseline needs and the nuances of communication that were otherwise drowned out.
Shift #2: Not exercising gave me humility and proof that I could survive without it. When I was dependent upon exercise, I felt like I was being held captive by it. Even though I enjoyed the buzz of the adrenaline, I couldn’t miss a workout without feeling guilty. The more I exercised, the more I needed to exercise. The bar kept getting higher and higher, in much the same way that weight loss goals do. I also found myself sourcing my self-esteem in how dedicated I was to my routine, and feared that my own “laziness” was just around the corner. It was like I was running from myself, knowing that at some phases of life I had resisted exercise and feared that apathy would “come back.” Exercise was also the means by which I helped control my body. To not exercise would mean that my body weight might increase. I feared losing this perceived sense of control, once again feeling like I was walking a tightrope. When I stopped exercising, I consciously surrendered this sense of control and moral high ground. The idea of not exercising was worse than the actual experience of not exercising. I’m not saying it was easy or without fear, but in committing to giving away this false sense of security, I learned how to be safe without it. My body did change as I stopped restricting, but relinquishing exercise as a way to feel in control of those changes was actually quite freeing. I knew that my body was showing up authentically, rather than as a product of unsustainably rigid conditions. I also had more time to engage in life, instead of crowding out hobbies or relaxation so I could fit in a run. To this day, some of my go-to sources of creativity, productivity, and restoration are activities I reclaimed during my year off of exercise.
Shift #3: Not exercising gave me the freedom to understand how, when, and how much I really want to exercise.
Three or four months into not exercising, I noticed that I wanted to exercise again. I felt my legs wanting to leap, sprint, dance, stretch, pound pavement.
Previously, my “wanting to exercise” was only felt as a guilt-driven necessity to cleanse myself of excess food, but this urge presented differently. It was actually just the impulse to move for the sake of moving – to clear energy from my nervous system or ground myself in the present moment. I had never understood this before, although I had heard other people talk about it. Without the obligation, my body had space to talk to me about what it wanted.
I also noticed that movement didn’t come in only high-intensity versions. Sometimes I wanted to stretch or get into a certain yoga position, which had nothing to do with expending energy or breaking a sweat. I had no idea that my body craved these things; I had always thought I was a cerebral being only, and not one of those people in touch with their bodies. But here I was, wanting some downward dog after my kids left for school without quite understanding why.
Almost a full year after I had stopped all intentional exercise, I decided it was time to bring it back. By that time, it felt like my world had changed. I was no longer binging and restricting, and my relationship with my body had shifted on the whole.
I started out slowly, once or twice a week, paying attention to how my hunger signals fluctuated and how my body told me I’d had enough. I noticed my muscles more, how they reclaimed their strength and knew how to support me, how to recruit their surrounding muscles, how to keep me in balance despite having been away from it for so long. I also noticed that my ego didn’t need to attach to the experience as much as it used to; I didn’t find meaning in priding myself through it, but rather through being conscious in it. Every year since then, I’ve taken the winter off of structured movement. I let my mind and body rest to remind me what I learned during that time, especially as stress builds and I notice a tendency to move towards excess. I also take random times off here and there during the year when I notice that my body isn’t enjoying something as much as I know it can.
Have you ever considered taking a chunk of time away from exercise? If not, why not? If so (but you haven’t), what’s stopped you? And if you’ve tried it, how did it go? Curious to hear your thoughts and stories!