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Exercise in Eating Disorder Recovery: Beneficial or Detrimental?

Updated on October 14, 2014

When considering the case of a malnourished individual suffering from an energy deficit, as is present in patients with anorexia, bulimia, and EDNOS, incorporating exercise into the treatment plan may seem counter-intuitive: how can burning energy through exercise be beneficial in someone suffering from a long-term energy deficit? While exercising while underweight can further damage the cardiovascular health and can increase the risk for stress fractures, many studies have shown that aerobic exercise and strength training can be implemented into a patient’s treatment plan without decreases in weight or BMI or increases in eating disordered behaviors [2,4].

The author biking with her father, 2008.
The author biking with her father, 2008.

When paired with nutritional rehabilitation, exercise can provide the same results to patients with eating disorder as in the general population, meaning a decreased risk of developing cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and insulin sensitivity [4,5]. More importantly, exercise has been linked to an increase in body weight and bone density in patients with anorexia, as well as increased mood due to a decrease in anxiety and depression and improved body image and self-awareness [1,2,3,]. Surprisingly, the implementation of healthy and moderate exercise within a treatment environment was correlated with an increased degree of compliance, which can greatly improve the efficacy of any treatment plan [2,4].

In conclusion, moderate exercise can provide many health and psychological benefits to patients in recovery from eating disorders. While over-exercise or exercise addiction may be implicated in a patient’s eating disorder history, a healthy relationship with exercise and the body can be achieved with the proper support of a treatment team. including a medical doctor and a dietitian. Exercise should not be demonized in recovery as unnecessary calorie burning but instead presented as a useful tool in increasing physical and emotional health.

The author biking, post-treatment, 2014.
The author biking, post-treatment, 2014.

References:

[1] Grant, J. 2012. The benefits of yoga in eating disorder recovery: perspectives from those in recovery. Master of Social Work and Clinical Research Papers: 125.

[2] Vancamfort et al. 2014. A systematic review of physical therapy interventions with patients with anorexia and bulemia nervosa. Disability and Rehabilation 36(8): 628 - 634.

[3] Vancamfort et al. 2014. Physiotherapy improves eating disorders and quality of life in bulimia and anorexia nervosa. British Journal of Sports Medicine 10: 1146.

[4] Moola et al. 2013. Exercise in the care of patients with anorexia nervosa: a systematic review of the literature. Mental Health and Physical Activity 6(2): 59 - 68.

[5] Siddiqui et al. 2010. Regular physical exercise: way to healthy life. Mymensingh Medical Journal 19(1): 154 - 158.

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