Eating disorders are not a choice, let me be clear about that. But l have found that traveling the road to recovery requires a constellation of big and small choices every day. I have been able to gain the mental endurance for those choices–somewhat ironically–through workout routines known as high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

A thin line between too much control and out of control

But first, a little background. My eating disorder behavior, like that of many other patients, is not primarily about food or even body image. It is about control and the ability to make my own choices. For me, there is a dangerously thin line between not having enough control over my life and burning out from exerting too much control over myself. And disordered eating waits to ambush me on both sides.

My freshman year of college was the first time I persistently restricted both the quantity and variety of foods l ate. It was one thing l could control fully when the rest of my life was going through tremendous change. And it was an effective way of eliminating most of the dizzying array of choices facing me as a new college student. I no longer had to choose which friends to eat dinner with or what to eat at said dinner. The disorder made the choices for me. l later began exhibiting binge-purge behavior, which was a way (or so I thought) to undo food choices l regretted. Bulimia allowed me to temporarily lose control of my eating, but it was actually the harshest master of all.  

Making the next healthy choice

Recovery itself always begins with a choice: a choice to try, a choice to face discomfort, a choice to live. For me, l had to choose to face whatever stress or emotional discomfort was urging me to restrict or purge, recognize my feelings, and find a healthier coping mechanism. At first, all I could do was choose to be healthier for the next five minutes. Then the next hour. Then the next day. Sometimes I would string together several healthy days, even a few weeks, before sliding back. Eventually those backward slides went from a mile to a meter to an inch. Every one of those victories came from a choice to be kind to myself. 

During recovery, exercise is one of my healthier coping mechanisms l can choose instead of disordered eating behaviors. Of course, l have learned to be careful with working out; done for the wrong reasons, it can become a compulsion too. What has helped me most is a form of exercise called high-intensity interval training. These workouts consist of short intervals of all-out effort punctuated by even shorter intervals of active rest. There have been a number of studied benefits of HIIT, including greater cardiovascular fitness and anaerobic capacity. But the greatest benefits for me were mental.

The benefits of HIIT

For starters, the focus in HIIT (and traditional strength training) is on gaining fitness rather than losing calories. My goal is completing more reps, lifting more weight, working harder, better, faster, stronger every time. The HIIT workouts I do (from Fitness Blender) also do not rely on machines that spit out triggering (and probably inaccurate) calorie expenditures, so it’s just me and my body. The motivation to work hard and get strong comes from inside. Most importantly, HIIT has taught me how to be comfortable with discomfort, knowing it won’t last forever. The instructors in the HIIT videos I watch often remind me, “You can do anything for twenty seconds!” Even burpees.

HIIT strengthened my physical muscles, of course, but I think it has also fortified what I call my choice muscle. “You can do anything for twenty seconds!” applies to resisting the urge to purge and powering through star jumps alike. Don’t get me wrong: the motto of eating disorder recovery is not “Just don’t do it.” Eating disorders are not a choice, so you can’t just choose not to have one. Disordered eating is a complex response to mental and emotional stress, relationship dynamics, and biological tendencies. I have spent years in therapy digging into the roots of my behaviors and learning healthier alternatives, and that process cannot be skipped or hurried. 

But recovery is a choice. It’s a choice survivors have to make every day, every hour, every minute. And choosing to keep doing push-ups for another ten or twenty seconds when I’d rather stop has enabled me to keep choosing well in other areas of my life.