How Running Helped Me Conquer My Eating Disorder
"I no longer count calories or pounds as a measure of success. Now I count miles, PRs, and medals."
The strange thing about my eating disorder is that it started when I wasn't trying to lose weight.
I went on a trip to Ecuador during my senior year of high school, and I was so focused on enjoying every moment of the adventure that I didn't even realize I'd lost 10 pounds in the month I was there. But when I got home, everyone else noticed and the compliments started pouring in. I'd always been athletic and never considered myself "fat," but now that everyone was telling me how great I looked, I decided that I had to maintain my new thinner look at all costs. This mentality morphed into an obsession with dieting and exercise, and I quickly dropped down to just 98 pounds. (Related: What Is Body Checking and When Is It a Problem?)
After graduation, I spent a semester abroad studying in London before I began college in Upstate New York. I was excited about the freedom that living alone entailed, but my depression-which I had been struggling with for the past year-was getting worse by the day. Limiting what I ate was one of the only things I felt I could control, but the less I ate, the less energy I had, and it got to the point where I quit working out altogether. I remember thinking that I should be having the time of my life-so, why was I so miserable? By October I broke down to my parents and finally admitted that I needed help, after which I began therapy and started taking an antidepressant.
Back in the U.S., the meds started improving my mood, and that combined with all the drinking and junk food I was eating (hey, it was college, after all), made the weight I lost start to pile back on. I joke that instead of gaining the "freshman 15" I gained the "depression 40." At that point, gaining 40 pounds was actually a healthy thing for my frail frame, but, I panicked-my eating-disordered mind was unable to accept what I saw in the mirror.
And that's when the bulimia started. Several times a week, throughout the rest of my college career, I'd eat and eat and eat, and then make myself throw up and work out for hours at a time. I knew it had gotten out of control, but I just didn't know how to stop.
After graduation, I moved to New York City and kept up with my unhealthy cycle. On the outside I looked stereotypically healthy; going to the gym four to five times a week and eating low-calorie foods. But at home, I was still bingeing and purging. (Related: Everything You Need to Know About Exercise Addiction)
Things started to make a change for the better when, in 2013, I made a New Year's resolution to try one new workout class a week. Until then, all I ever did was hop on the elliptical, sweating joylessly until I reached a certain calorie burn. That one little goal ended up changing my entire life. I started with a class called BodyPump and fell in love with strength training. I was no longer exercising to punish myself or to just burn calories. I was doing it to get strong, and I loved that feeling. (Related: 11 Major Health and Fitness Benefits of Lifting Weights)
Next up, I tried Zumba. The women in that class were so feisty-so proud of their bodies! As I became close friends with some of them, I began to wonder what they would think of me hunched over the toilet. I drastically cut back on bingeing and purging.
The final nail in the coffin of my eating disorders was signing up to run a race. I quickly realized that if I wanted to train hard and run fast, I had to eat properly. You can't starve yourself and be a great runner. For the first time, I began to see food as fuel for my body, not as a way to reward or punish myself. Even when I went through a heartbreaking breakup, I channeled my feelings into running instead of food. (Related: Running Helped Me Overcome Anxiety and Depression)
Eventually, I joined a running group, and in 2015 I completed the New York City Marathon to raise money for Team for Kids, a charity that donates money to New York Road Runners Youth Programs. Having a supportive community behind me was so important. It was the most amazing thing I've ever done, and I felt so empowered crossing that finish line. Training for the race made me realize that running gives me a sense of control over my body-similiar to how I felt about my eating disorders but in a much healthier way. It also made me realize how amazing my body is and that I wanted to protect it and nourish it with good food.
I had my heart set on doing it again, so last year I spent a lot of time running the nine races required to qualify for the 2017 New York Marathon. One of those was the SHAPE Women's Half Marathon, which really took the positivity I associated with running to the next level. It's an all-women race, and I loved being surrounded by such positive female energy. I remember it being such a gorgeous spring day, and I was thrilled to run a race with so much lady power! There's something so empowering about watching women cheer each other on-women representing every body type you can imagine, showing their strength and accomplishing their goals.
I realize that my story might sound a little unusual. Some women with eating disorders might use running as another way to burn extra calories or punish themselves for eating-I was guilty of that back when I was slaving away on the elliptical. But for me, running has taught me to appreciate my body for what it can do, not just for the way it looks. Running has taught me the importance of being strong and of taking care of myself so I can continue to do what I love. I'd be lying if I said I didn't care about my appearance, but I no longer count calories or pounds as a measure of success. Now I count miles, PRs, and medals.
If you or someone you know is at risk or experiencing an eating disorder, resources are available online from the National Eating Disorders Association or through the NEDA hotline at 800-931-2237.