By: Lisa DeKam, PT
When healing from an eating disorder, it might feel confusing at times to know how to
make decisions around exercise. We know there are so many benefits to exercise and
movement, and at the same time, activity choices can feel tricky if exercise has been
mixed in with the eating disorder. We also know it’s important to “listen to our bodies,”
though if the eating disorder has fostered a disconnect between your mind and body,
listening skills can feel new and uncertain.
So where do we start? Using a stoplight tool to gauge physical, mental and emotional
readiness and response can bring some clarity to these choices. Here’s how this
resource can be used:
● Red lights indicate that your body and mind aren’t ready for exercise. This could
include (but isn’t limited to) ongoing pain, exhaustion, illness, restricting
food/drink, feeling unable to adapt to a change in your exercise schedule, using
exercise primarily as a means to numb out, or feeling a sense of dread or
punishment with exercise.
● Green lights are signs that your body and mind are ready to go. Being pain- and
symptom-free, feeling energized and rejuvenated by movement, adapting to your
mind and body cues, enjoying being in the presence of others, and being
well-nourished would fall into this category.
● Yellow lights are sometimes the most confusing. Are you feeling fatigued? A
nap might be in order before you exercise. Do you feel sluggish but know that
exercise often rejuvenates you? Set a timer and check in with yourself 5 minutes
into your session–if you’re still tired, you have permission to stop and rest. If
your body and mind feel energized and sturdy, proceed mindfully. Have you
missed a snack or meal? Take time to eat and digest before your movement
session. Is your anxiety high? Practice using another mental health tool (ie.
breathwork, grounding, journaling, social support) first to bring yourself to a
This stoplight tool can be used before and during your session to assess your readiness
to exercise and to practice listening to what your mind and body need and want. It can
also be used afterward to reflect on the response of your mind and body, helping to
guide your future choices and behaviors. (Of note, always follow the guidance of your
treatment team if they’ve determined that a pause from exercise is indicated for a period
Mindfulness and intentionality are key in using this tool to guide your movement. If you
sense the eating disorder dismissing pain or injury, creating an urgency for movement,
or moving itself into the driver’s seat with exercise in other ways, being attuned to your
mental, physical and emotional readiness for movement will help you know if you need
to take your foot off the gas, adjust your direction, or tap the brakes on certain exercise
As with other pieces of recovery, using support in navigating your exercise choices is
also important for countering the push of the eating disorder toward isolation. You don’t
need to do this alone–lean into your support system as you build skills in assessing
exercise readiness and response. Stoplights can be an efficient and effective tool for
checking in with your support team, addressing any areas of concern, and celebrating
together the places where you’re experiencing freedom and joy!
As you learn more about how your mind and body respond to movement, this
self-assessment process becomes easier and more intuitive–what may have felt at the
beginning like city driving with various starts and stops can over time turn into the
freedom of a joy ride!
Lisa DeKam, PT is a physical therapist and the co-founder of The Axia Project, an organization dedicated to helping women know the truth that her worth is not based off the appearance of her body.
Connect with Lisa on Instagram @lisadekam.pt
Learn more about The Axia Project on Instagram @theaxiaproject or on their website http://www.theaxiaproject.com