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When it comes to fitness, it’s easy to fall into the go hard or go home mindset. But such extremes aren’t useful when it comes to maintaining a healthy, lifelong relationship with movement. Mindful movement like weight training can help to moderate extremists, aleve and benadryl as former ‘all-or-nothing’ exerciser Zuva Seven found out.
Trigger warning: contains discussions of disordered eating. Anyone who has or has had an eating disorder should not attempt strength training without medical permission.
I’ve always been “all or nothing” when it comes to exercise and food. Perhaps, then, it’s not surprising to learn that I’ve struggled with disordered eating. I can’t remember a time when I’ve not been on a diet.
Complex and with no isolated cause, the UK’s disordered eating charity, Beat, estimates that there are over 1.25 million people in the UK who have an eating disorder – 75% of whom are women. Within the Black community, however, getting a diagnosis can be tricky; I, for one, didn’t know the symptoms of an eating disorder despite living with them.
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The number of people from Black African backgrounds who are being admitted to hospital with eating disorders has risen by 216% since 2019, and one possible reason for the increase is the changing perception that despite what is most commonly depicted in media, advertising and entertainment, we more readily know that eating disorders don’t only affect white people, or wealthy white women in particular.
If this is the case, the worrying number of Black women being hospitalised with eating disorders would chime well with the overall distrust of the medical profession held by people of colour. According to the same study, only 52% of Black women say they’d feel confident enough to seek help compared to 64% of white British respondents.
For me, it was only after I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and then inattentive ADHD that I decided to take an active role in ending the diet cycle I had been in. My triad of conditions isn’t unusual; over 90% of patients with BPD meet the criteria for anorexia, bulimia and other non-specified eating disorders. Regarding ADHD, the prevalence of eating disorders is much higher in those with ADHD symptoms than those without them.
Turning to strength training as a way to break destructive dieting cycles
My decision to make a change came during the peak of the pandemic when the gyms were closed and medical professionals were all but inaccessible. I decided to try strength training. Though it wasn’t my initial intention, in the few months that I’ve been training I’ve felt something shift, and even now that the novelty of trying something new has faded, I’m still pushing on at the gym. I go because I want to.
Social media has been instrumental in helping with this mental transition. One of the leading content creators when it comes to women’s strength training is Sohee Lee, a fitness coach and educator based in Los Angeles. Her content tends to focus on providing both educational and informative posts that aim to bust common fitness misconceptions.
Currently working towards her PhD with a focus on strength training in women, she notes how people of all genders correlate ‘getting in shape’ with food restriction. “There is a lot of diet culture messaging that clients come with and a lot of the coaching I do involves getting them to acknowledge whatever messages they’ve learnt and helping them to overcome and unlearn that,” she tells Stylist.
With carbs being the micronutrient many choose to cut out when trying to get lean, she explains how vital it is that clients give themselves permission to eat enough food every day. However, as with all things, it is a process that differs for all people. “A lot of times, it is a matter of having small concrete habits that you can practise every day and then over time making those habits a little bit bigger and more difficult.”
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For Lee, the secret comes in empowerment and the belief that we can regulate our own eating habits. Believing that once you have this down, eating well and consistently can help to fight against an all-or-nothing mentality – something I’ve been trying to do for years.
That’s something Sarah Cannon, qualified PT, psychological wellbeing practitioner and nutrition coach, does as part of her work with mental health charities. “I work with people experiencing depression and/or anxiety and use guided cognitive behavioural therapy techniques alongside personal training sessions in order to help people improve their overall wellbeing,” she explains. Her job is to assess how people think, feel and behave, and then work out how those areas are linked.
When it comes to tackling the all-or-nothing mentality, she reminds us that it takes time: “Progress in anything is rarely linear. The results we get with our diet and exercise are the culmination of what we do over time, not during one single training session or one single meal. Shifting our focus from being black and white to the grey middle is what actually gets the results. We want progress over perfection”.
To get to that point, we need to build our training up in a sustainable, injury-preventing way, and the easiest place to start is by introducing more movement into our daily lives. When it comes to strength training, I’ve found it useful to follow the rule: eight to 12 reps, in two or three sets (focusing on the big muscle groups), two or three times a week.
So what about people like me who have histories of disordered eating? How can we ensure that we’re safe to lift? Tom Quinn, director of external affairs at Beat stresses: “What is suitable for one person won’t be for another. In this way, while strength training may be appropriate for some people in recovery, for others it can have a negative impact.”
He’s keen to underline the importance of those in recovery consulting their GP before beginning any kind of fitness programme. “It’s also important that people check in with themselves about their intentions behind strength training. For instance, if the intention is to lose weight, this could be very negative for somebody in recovery.”
I’m one of those people who didn’t begin their journeys with healthy intentions and while there are times when I stress about the speed of my progress, I’m now aiming for more. My habits are changing with time, as is my all-or-nothing way of thinking about food and fitness. There’s something about strength training being a skill that’s allowed me to build confidence and self-belief, rather than getting caught up in the numbers.
If you’re worried about your own or someone else’s health, you can contact Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity on 0808 801 0677 from 9am till midnight on weekdays or 4pm till midnight on weekends/bank holidays. You can also access information and support services at www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk
For more first-person stories, fitness tips and workout ideas, visit the Strong Women Training Club.
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