By Amanda Willett, CSW, MPH
*This article is to be utilized in conjunction with your treatment team and doesn’t serve as medical or psychological advice.
Exercise is a common facet of all types of eating disorders. For many individuals with eating disorders, exercise functions as a way to purge calories and lose weight, to punish oneself, and to disconnect from one’s body and life, among other functions. As individuals move into recovery, professionals question whether physical activity be included as part of a comprehensive approach to treatment. Exercise is an important component of a general healthy lifestyle and therefore, it is important to learn how to engage in movement in a more intuitive manner in order for those moving into recovery to feel empowered to take on life and foster a new relationship between their mind and body.
Empowerment is the process of becoming stronger and more confident. Individuals dealing with eating disorders and first starting recovery often feel disempowered to overcome the eating disorder and to find a new way of engaging in life. In order to feel confident to manage stressful and challenging life events, empowerment is vital to build within those in recovery, and studies have shown that empowerment and self-efficacy are predictors of body image and eating behaviors.
Exercise is known to have positive mental and physical benefits. A positive mental health benefit that is often overlooked is that exercise fuels feelings of empowerment within individuals. Exercise strengthens the mind-body connection by teaching people how to listen to their bodies, which stimulates the person to develop a new connection with their body. Being able to listen to one’s body was reported to have positive effects in social life by being able to determine if their mind and body felt ready for exercise and easing the pressure to prioritize exercise for those in recovery.
Strength training is an excellent way to build empowerment among individuals in recovery and helps the person to find new meaning in how they view and utilize their body. Being able to experience and be present with muscles and your body in a new way allows individuals to feel strong and powerful, which promotes an appreciation for one’s body and how it functions. It has been found that shifting one’s focus and intention from how their body looks to the experience of having a body that is well-functioning is rewarding among individuals in recovery.
Finding empowerment through strength training translates to improvements in multiple areas of life. Empowerment-based self-defense has been shown to improve outcomes for those recovering from trauma by increasing self-efficacy, assertiveness, and perceived control while decreasing self-blame. Other studies show that empowerment-based exercise programs increase self-efficacy, improve the degree to which one believes in their abilities to tackle new tasks and cope with adversity in various domains of life, and how to set higher goals for oneself, and stay focused on achieving them.
Strength training gives individuals in recovery the confidence and strength to take on life and encourages a relationship between the self and body, which can be difficult for those moving into recovery as they have spent time disconnecting from and ignoring their bodies. Feeling the strength and confidence makes the person feel like they are capable. They start to respect their body and the amazing things it can do for them, so they want to care for it, nourish it, and love it. Through strength training, individuals navigating recovery can find the confidence to conquer life in recovery and to be free and liberated from their eating disorder.
Strength training can be a great recovery tool. Please consult your treatment team if you want to incorporate strength training into your recovery journey in order to determine the appropriate level of engagement for you.