For Hannah Fuhlendorf, exercise used to be an excruciating endeavor.
“It was a tool that was used for self-punishment and bodily control,” the 29-year-old certified counselor, who has a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling, told In The Know. “There was no pleasure or joy in any part of it, and yet, it occupied a huge amount of space in my life and took up a lot of my time, energy and resources.”
Fuhlendorf, who has struggled with eating disorders in “varying degrees of severity” from the time she was eight years old through the age of 25, says that for those 17 years of her life, exercise represented nothing to her “except a path to thinness.”
“Like a lot of people, I grew up in a home and in a culture that expected thinness from me,” she shared. “But when it became clear during my childhood that my body sits at a higher weight than was expected of me or acceptable to those around me, disordered behaviors began.”
Over the past four years, Fuhlendorf has been working toward recovery, which has allowed her to rediscover the joy in movement and to untangle exercise and its many benefits from toxic diet culture and the pursuit of thinness — and she has brought TikTok along for the journey, under the handle @hannahtalksbodies.
The relationship between diet culture and exercise is a notably complex one that can take those struggling with weight-loss-obsessed mindsets years to understand and break free from, even with the help of a medical professional.
Although a lot of people exercise for a multitude of positive reasons, some people, particularly those struggling with disordered eating habits, may use it as a means to punish themselves for eating “bad” or indulgent foods or as a potentially harmful bid to change their appearances, rather than a means to benefit their bodies, minds and overall health.
“People with eating disorders frequently only engage in the most exhausting, highest impact forms of exercise,” Fuhlendorf explained. “The word ‘exercise’ may as well have been swapped with ‘torture’ for me, and that’s true for a lot of folks in eating disorder recovery.”
Fuhlendorf’s view toward exercise and movement started to change in 2017 when she began seeing a therapist who practiced Health at Every Size (HAES), an approach that aims to eliminate stigmas against weight, respect size diversity and improve access to health care for everyone.
According to the Washington Post, HAES practitioners “reject the use of weight, body mass index or body size as proxies for health and call for health policies and personal practices that support health and well-being without requiring a change in body size or shape.”
Her new therapist’s focus on the idea that health can be attained separately from thinness, was game-changing for Fuhlendorf.
“She was a major part of my recovery journey,” the TikToker said of her therapist. “She helped me understand the reality of my eating disorder and provided an alternative perspective that I didn’t even know was possible. A life at peace with my body, not pursuing thinness was something I didn’t even think was an option for a fat person.”
“I had so bought into lies of fatphobia and had such deeply internalized anti-fat beliefs about myself that the concept of accepting my body rather than living in the constant pursuit of making myself smaller had never occurred to me,” she added.
After discovering HAES, Fuhlendorf set out on the daunting path of mending her relationship with physical movement — a journey that began with a mental reset and some much-needed rest.
“What I knew for certain was that exercise, in the way I knew it, was not safe for me, and I needed to be very protective of my recovery,” she explained. “So for almost a year, I took a break; I abstained from doing anything I considered ‘formal exercise.'”
For Fuhlendorf, this meant canceling gym memberships, unfollowing nearly 100 fitness influencers on social media, and deleting diet and workout apps off of her phone. The experience, she says, was nothing short of liberating.
“For the first time in 17 years, I felt like I could breathe,” she recalled. “I felt like I was actually participating in my life rather than just enduring it.”
As her recovery progressed, Fuhlendorf says she began to discover the types of movement that made her feel joy rather than pain — she began to fill her time with things like stretching, swimming, dancing, yoga and boxing, instead of the punishingly difficult high-intensity workouts that had left her scarred.
“Suddenly, I had to figure out who I was and what I actually liked as a grown adult, when most people go through that initial phase of self-discovery in high school or college,” she explained. “I learned how to develop skills rather than just how to exhaust myself. And for the first time in my life, I found that there were types of movement that I really loved.”
Fuhlendorf says she truly “savored” these early days of her recovery, which represented a period of massive personal growth and discovery.
“One of the things I learned was that there are fat people in the world who actually, genuinely, no bulls**t love physical movement,” she shared. “As someone who had only ever used physical movement to punish and shrink myself, this was inconceivable to me.”
Four years after first entering a period of recovery from her eating disorder, Fuhlendorf has successfully been able to adapt her exercise routine to include whatever feels good to her body at the moment.
“To this day, I swim and box and dance and move my body however and whenever feels best,” she explained. “I have zero rules for frequency or intensity. It is all about my enjoyment. Period. I have found that to be the most impactful change in my relationship with movement. If I don’t like it, I don’t do it.”
Fuhlendorf still finds herself staying out of conventional gyms as much as possible — finding that they tend to be “rife with fatphobia and disordered behaviors” — and avoiding workout machines that reveal the number of calories a user has burned, which can be triggering to those who are prone to feeling they need to earn their food by burning it off.
“I don’t take classes where the instructors talk about weight loss or make fatphobic remarks,” she added. “I don’t put myself in any spaces in person or online where the intent is to change or shrink my body at all. I still have to be very protective of my mental health.”
To anyone looking to improve their own toxic or harmful mindset surrounding physical movement, Fuhlendorf recommends taking a break from exercise and consulting a trusted therapist or physician. Most importantly, listen to your body and what it needs before diving into any new type of regimen.
“If you have a therapist or a treatment team, make sure you’re staying in communication with them about when you think you’re ready to start engaging in movement again,” she suggested. “Be willing to slow down, lower the intensity, and try new types of movement you’ve never done before. Focus on doing what feels good, not what you think makes a workout a ‘good workout.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder or disordered eating habits, contact the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) at 1-800-931-2237. You can also connect with a Crisis Text Line counselor at no charge by texting the word “HOME” to 741741. Visit the NEDA website to learn more about the possible warning signs of eating disorders and disordered eating.
If you found this story insightful, read about why we need to stop using “fat” as an insult.
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