15/05/2013 11:04 BST | Updated 14/07/2013 06:12 BST

Super-STRONG vs Super-Skinny


I'm 5ft2 and look about 12, but I can run 10km in 46mins, keep up with the 6ft girls in my boat and lift pretty heavy weights for my size. I weigh 3st more than I did at my lowest anorexic weight, but I'm comfortable with that because I know a large amount of the difference is made up by muscle. Basing my body image on the improvements I see in my performance and the way my training clothes fit rather than the numbers on the scales is so much more practical, because it actually serves a purpose. Building my weight alone was utterly depressing - watching the numbers increase week by week with no perceived control over them; building my strength instead means I'm getting better at the things I want to do!

A huge amount of my recovery has been learning that my body is capable of far more if it is well-maintained and nourished. Even something as simple as having the strength and energy to walk up the high street to Costa without feeling exhausted can enhance my life because it means that my coffee dates with friends are far more rewarding - I can actually think clearly enough to hold a conversation rather than immediately needing to rest!

My favourite quote of all time was given to me by a friend:

'What if we viewed exercise not as a way to get the bodies we want, but as a way of celebrating the amazing things out bodies can do?'

And if it's not enough to make that choice for yourself, I can guarantee that if you asked men the majority of them would choose toned over skinny any day!

Of course, there is a danger of slipping the other way and becoming driven by the need to become MORE toned, more muscular, get a six pack, lift heavier weights. I've been through that stage as well. But in my experience the happiest women are those who have found a healthy balance between food and exercise. They don't worry about their diet because they know they are active enough to counterbalance it, but equally they don't feel pressured into excessive exercise because they are not scared of their weight changing slightly.

In her book 'An Apply a Day', Emma Woolf writes about pinning photos of athletes and cut-outs from running magazines on her fridge as a reminder that looking and feeling good isn't all about weight - those girls are indisputably stunning, yet they are strong rather than skinny, muscular and toned rather than waif-like. They don't care about the ridiculous 'thigh gap' trend or the measurement of their waist, they focus on building up their bodies to allow them to succeed!

Aptly, the theme of this year's Mental Health Awareness Week is physical activity and exercise. As I've repeatedly stressed, exercise has been crucial in restoring my own mental health. The release of endorphins is undeniably beneficial for those suffering from depression and other disorders. However, in terms of eating disorders, I understand that promoting exercise is controversial. My view is that exercise whilst in the grips of anorexia is harmful because it perpetuates the competitive mindset, and any spent energy is unlikely to be replaced, but once into recovery gentle exercise to begin with has the potential to serve as an additional form of therapy by challenging the desire to be skinny and showing a sufferer what they are truly capable of when healthy!