To Exercise or Not to Exercise? That is the Question

Today the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave  is now a nation that is saturated with a population suffering from a myriad of health problems.  Now that shouldn’t be so surprising considering the fact that more than 1/3 of the American population is obese.  Obesity – which is quite obviously an extraordinarily serious medical condition – puts an individual at risk for multiple diseases, many of which are life threatening. Some of these illnesses include heart disease, type 2 diabetes, reproductive problems,  sleep apnea, and even some types of cancer.   Of course there are many factors that come in to play when talking about the cause of our worrisome obesity epidemic. One of the reasons obesity has become so wide-spread across the globe is because western diets are chalked-full of highly-processed, sugar-stuffed pieces of crap we call food. But our horrifying diets our only part of the equation. The second part of the equation includes a little something we call exercise.

Exercise is something that seems to be completely foreign to us Westerners. I swear that a majority of our population thinks that walking for 30 seconds to get to our cars after gorging  Micky D’s Big Macs counts as exercise! I know, isn’t it just horrendous?!?!  So many people seem to be completely blind when it comes to discussing the benefits exercise has to offer. Not only does exercise aid in weight control and prevent an array of dangerous health conditions, it also helps boost your mood, raise your energy levels, and promote better sleep! Now who could argue with that?

But when it comes to eating disorders and exercise, things aren’t so cut and dry. For many people living with Ed, exercise is something that is done compulsively in order to purge calories and continue to lose drastic amounts of weight. Because exercise is so intertwined with eating disorder behaviors and body weight, many professionals who treat those suffering from an ED forbid patients from ever returning to normal exercise.

One of these so-called “eating disorder experts” is Dr. Julie O’Toole. She was once a general practice pediatrician who ended up creating the Kartini Clinic, an eating disorder treatment center for pediatric patients with EDs.   Dr. Julie O’Toole is a strong believer in forcing pediatric ED victims to remain totally abstinent from exercise.  Why?  Well, apparently because some other doctor said that if an ED patient returns to sports or exercise after treatment, they have a 50% relapse rate. 50% is obviously an extremely high and rather alarming rate, but I honestly believe that this number is inflated quite drastically. You see, O’Toole never cited the research on this particular statistic and she also admits this  in a comment she wrote after writing an article on exercise and anorexia on her blog.

What “eating disorder experts” like Dr. Julie O’Toole fail to recognize is that exercise is not the soul cause of  returning to eating disorder behaviors and that many factors come into play when a person relapses. I know that when I welcomed Ed back into my life, exercise did not cause it at all. Really the cause of my relapse was the lack of control I had in my external environment  and my feelings of discomfort with new post-treatment body. Another thing O’Toole does not take into account is the fact that there has been evidence proving that controlled exercise can be a positive intervention for those suffering from an eating disorder.  For example, at the Renfrew Center of Philadelphia (a residential eating disorder program) patients take part in multiple forms of  physical activity including yoga, pilates, resistance training, and conditioning.  What the Renfrew Center of Philadelphia found was that women who took part in exercise actually gained more weight and felt less driven to abuse exercise than anorexic patients who did not exercise. Still need some more evidence on the benefits of EDs and exercise? Well here’s a short list for you skeptics out there:

  •  Researchers in Belgium analyzed a total of eight randomized control studies looking at the benefits of physical therapy (which includes massage, aerobic exercise, yoga,  and body awareness therapy) and found that physical therapy greatly reduced eating disorder scores and depression in ED patients.
  • In the Adolescent Medicine department of Seattle Children’s Hospital, researchers took 50 girls and 4 boys with eating disorders and split them into two separate groups. One group received the standard “anti-exercise” treatment while the other group received standard treatment with 1 hour yoga classes that occurred semi-weekly. Patients in the group that participated in yoga ended up with decreased EDE scores and Food Preoccupation responses.
  • (p.s. you can check out the article here!)

Now this is not the only evidence linking exercise with improvements in eating disorder behaviors. There are much more out there and I encourage you to do even more research on your own!  It’s about time we spread the word about the benefits of exercise in eating disorder treatment!  we eating disorder patients deserve the best treatment possible and if we are not receiving therapy that includes exercise, we are not receiving the treatment we deserve!


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