I Stopped Focusing My Workouts on Burning Calories—Here’s What I’m Doing Instead

Workout group class at the gym
Workout group class at the gym

Let’s be real: exercise and wellness trends are pretty much inescapable parts of modern-day life. Everywhere I look, I see advertisements and advertorials about workouts, juice cleanses, and new fad diets. These never-ending reminders of weight loss and body image are especially overwhelming during recovery from an eating disorder. Feeling comfortable in your body can be difficult, especially when feeling anxious and overwhelmed with your life. 

As someone in recovery for an eating disorder, I have struggled for years with my relationship with food and exercise. Poor body image coupled with a desire for complete control has forced me to under-eat and overexercise. Compulsive exercise is often a symptom of eating disorders, especially anorexia nervosa. For years, I have pushed my body to its limits under the assumption that this was healthy. Now, it’s overwhelming to even consider exercising while in recovery, with worries about reverting back to my previous unhealthy coping mechanisms. 

I know I’m not alone here. Poor body image impacts people of all backgrounds, and can start at increasingly young ages. The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) reported that 40-60 percent of girls aged 6-12 are worried about their weight or body image. NEDA also noted that about half a million teens struggle with eating disorders or disordered eating patterns, and eating disorders disproportionately impact women. 

We’re so pressured to exercise to “look good,” rather than focusing on feeling good and feeling content with our bodies. Dealing with everyday anxiety combined with anxiety stemming from an eating disorder or stressful life event seems like a recipe for disaster. During stressful times in my life, I have been trying to remain well without having unrealistic expectations of myself regarding exercise and wellness. Thankfully, a much-needed shift in wellness culture is the emphasis on eating and exercising based on your personal needs. Throughout my recovery and during uncertain times, I have slowly learned how to listen to my body. Here’s some of the ways I’ve learned how to listen to my body in exercising:


Find a workout or exercise that you genuinely enjoy

Life is a constant comparison game—both on Instagram and in real life. In a world that has become increasingly (and extremely) online, it is so easy to become wrapped up in other people’s bread-baking skills, at-home workout routines, and self-care practices. When it comes to workouts, there are so many different exercises to try out, which can be overwhelming. Instead of focusing on what other people are doing or posting about, look into trying different workout activities or classes to see what works best for you and your body.

Trying different types of exercises, like pilates or barre classes, can help you refine what activities you enjoy and look forward to. Also planning a routine around your workouts, like exercising every morning before work, can help easily integrate exercise into your busy days. Not to be dramatic, but finding a workout you actually enjoy can be life-changing in promoting body acceptance.


Try some yoga 

I used to be the least flexible person in my entire family, which is why I was always nervous about trying yoga. If I could barely touch my toes, how could I learn to do downward dog and shoulder stands? Yet, yoga has been a big part of transforming my relationship with exercise. Many yoga practices emphasize the notion of “radical self-acceptance,” or meeting your body where it’s at with no judgment. This means acknowledging both your body’s strengths and limitations during your yoga practice. Lack of judgement helps me focus on breathing and enjoying my practice, rather than pushing my body to its limits. 


Set fitness goals, not weight goals 

Advertisements seem to only emphasize how workouts can help you lose weight by “dropping a few pounds” or “melting body fat,” but there are so many better health benefits to workouts that don’t involve weight loss at all.

Aerobic exercises help reduce stress, improve sleep quality, and enhance memory. However, it can be easy to fixate on how many calories you burn or how many pounds you lost this week. It can be more fulfilling to set fitness goals instead. I’ve shifted to developing fitness goals by focusing how I want to feel through exercise. If I want to feel strong, I decide to go for a run or complete a circuit workout. If I want to feel more relaxed, I will instead opt for yoga or a walk. Also, signing up for workout classes or races like 5Ks has helped motivate me to focus on the fitness aspect of exercise, rather than weight loss.

These goals could include running a certain number of miles, finishing strong in a workout class, or lifting a certain amount of weight. Some examples are running four miles by the end of the week, improving your mile time, or lifting 10 repetitions of a heavy dumbbell. 


Incorporate rest days into your schedule

I’ve always struggled with rest. I have a desire to always be working to reach my goals or exercise. Rest is especially important with a never-ending news cycle and overwhelming anxiety. Rest is a key part of any workout routine, for both your body and mind. Planning rest days allows time for your body to recuperate and grow stronger from all of your workouts in the past week.

Without rest, people are at greater risk for injury and other future problems, according to UConn Health. On rest days, you can opt for less vigorous workouts, like a walk around the block. Often in recovery, I have pushed my body to run faster, burn more calories, and become stronger. Now, I pay attention to how my body is feeling, if I’m experiencing any soreness, and what exercise would benefit me that day. Rest days have allowed me to pause and listen to my body instead of pushing my body to its limits, which has helped me learn to take things slow in recovery. 


Be social during workouts

Exercising with friends or family members can help you be more motivated and consistent in your workouts. Turning social events into group workouts can help motivate you through healthy competition and also hold you accountable for your weekly workout sessions, as scheduling a workout with a friend is harder to back out of, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted. Trying virtual workout classes at home is a great way to stay connected to others and get your body moving when working from home as well. 

Learning to trust and listen to your body takes a lot of time and patience. I’ve learned to focus on what makes me feel happy, strong, and confident in my own body. This will look different from person to person based on our own needs and preferences, which is completely OK. My relationship with my body changes daily. The activities that make you feel confident one day may not tomorrow. Try to take a deep breath and tune into what you’re feeling and what your body needs from you right now. Sometimes, what your body really needs is acceptance. 


If you are struggling with an eating disorder or with disordered thoughts or behaviors regarding food and eating, please seek help. Call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237 for support, reach out to a qualified medical professional, or, for a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741.