Rowing – learning to enjoy exercise after an eating disorder
Over the last 30-40 years, the prevalence of eating disorders has increased to become a widespread problem across the UK and worldwide. The eating disorders charity, Beat, estimates that there are over 1.6 million people struggling with an eating disorder throughout the UK. Recently WEROW spoke to Dr Nicky Keay about RED-S, formerly knows as the Female Athlete Triad. This condition of under-fuelling an overtrained athlete was renamed in recognition of the fact that RED-S is just as likely to affect men as well as women.
Ellie Simonds-Gooding, a student at the University of York has just been accepted onto the World Class Start rowing program. She has been telling the York Sport Union about her struggle with an eating disorder, her journey to recovery and how rowing trains her mind as well as her body.
‘I was never really told about eating disorders at school. Then, when I came to university, suddenly I was aware of them and felt a lot of pressure to look a certain way.’ Ellie, who speaks so sensitively and openly about her experience with her own body image and mental health, said that her illness began in her first year at York.
‘Among friends, I felt new and different pressures I had never experienced before. I felt I had to look a certain way and do things differently in order for people to like me. This is when I developed bulimia.’
Ellie, who speaks so sensitively and openly about her experience with her own body image and mental health, said that her illness began in her first year at York.
“Among friends I felt new and different pressures I had never experienced before. I felt I had to look a certain way and do things differently in order for people to like me. This is when I developed bulimia.”
Can you tell us more about the moment when your habits began to negatively change?
I became completely obsessive over calorie counting, especially after I downloaded the My Fitness Pal app. Suddenly, I was able to see not only how many calories I was eating but also what kind of micronutrients they had – I had a really detailed breakdown of what I was putting into my body at the click of a button.
How did you know that the way you were using the app wasn’t healthy?
My complete, all-encompassing obsession with calories. I began weighing my food and had a dangerously low-calorie diet for a while. In my mind at the time, I thought that if I went a couple of grams over what I had set myself then I would gain weight instantly.
Everything in my life revolved around food and was a consequence of me eating it – if I failed an exam, I told myself it was because I had eaten too much beforehand. It was nonsensical.mIt was an addiction. I was completely addicted to calorie counting, exercising and making myself sick.
At what point did you get professional help for your eating disorder?
At university, my obsession over food was easier to hide from loved ones. My housemates had an idea of what was going on, but for the most part I was by myself which meant no one was seeing how little I was eating.
“I didn’t want anyone to tell me that I was wrong and I thought that’s what a therapist would do”
When I used to go home for the holidays though, I couldn’t hide it as well. My family would find me weighing my food and tell me ‘This isn’t right – it’s not healthy.’ I agreed to go to the doctors to talk about it, but only really to get them off my back.
The doctor said I should see a therapist, which I was really resistant to do. Ultimately, what I believed in my mind was the truth – that I was overweight and restricting food was the only way to fix that. I didn’t want anyone to tell me that I was wrong and I thought that’s what a therapist would do.
And did you see one?
Yes, and I’ve never looked back. They helped me to accept myself, to understand my illness and habits. Don’t get me wrong – it was horrible at times. Facing up to some harsh realities and feelings was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do but it was worth it. I think everyone should see a therapist.
For me, recovery is an ongoing journey. I still have a therapist and am still working on accepting myself.
Where does rowing and sport come into all of this?
Before, exercise was part of my illness. I over exercised and punished myself if I missed a gym session. When I got into rowing, that began to change.
I was ‘scouted’ out in the gym at university! Rob, our trainer, came over to me and said ‘you’re big – you should row!’ I didn’t really like being called ‘big’ (although I’ve been called ‘big and broad’ all my life) but I knew that he meant that in a way that was positive. He meant I’d be a good rower!
After my first training session, I loved it. The team atmosphere was infectious and I loved how everyone was supporting each other. I realised there was a difference between enjoying exercise and doing it because I felt like I needed to do it. It’s helped me to love exercise again.
In terms of food, I learned that I needed it for horsepower – to fuel my body. I also deleted the app, which was a big moment for me. It took a long time as I was having to reteach my body to eat when it was hungry and to allow itself to get full.
Do you have any final words?
During Roses this year, I think people should be thinking about how important exercise is for their own mental health. It releases endorphins, gives you structure in a way that university doesn’t, and always ask yourself ‘Where’s my reason for exercising coming from?’
I still have to ask myself this sometimes and if I struggle to answer, I ask my boyfriend! Sometimes you need someone to give you permission to not exercise when you are struggling to give it to yourself – be kind!
Ellie Simonds-Gooding was speaking to the University of York Students Union