Exercise for recovery: empowering or damaging?

With so many new types of anorexia, the question about how sufferers are treated becomes all the more complex. Orthorexia is an obsession with what one considers to be ‘healthy’ eating, often accompanied by obsessive exercise.  Christy Oneil questions how one can assist someone suffering from orthorexia? How do you help someone who is convinced that their idea of a ‘healthy lifestyle’ is in fact unhealthy? Christy talks us through the pros and cons of exercise as a treatment for this illness are examined.


As society becomes more aware of the fact that no two eating disorders are alike, more forms of anorexia are emerging. These include illnesses such as orthorexia, pregorexia, and even drunkorexia. As with all eating disorders, the causal factors of these illnesses vary between sufferers. However, the most common factor is an obsession with exercise.

With so many new types of anorexia, the question about how sufferers are treated becomes all the more complex. Orthorexia is an obsession with what one considers to be ‘healthy’ eating, and this is often accompanied by obsessive exercise. The BBC revealed how The National Centre for Eating Disorders (NCFED) receives over 6,000 calls and emails yearly from orthorexia sufferers. So how does one assist someone suffering from orthorexia? How do you help someone who is convinced that their idea of a ‘healthy lifestyle’ is in fact unhealthy? In many cases, it is suggested that the sufferer returns to exercise, and one type in particular: weight training.

In this technological era where the image of the ‘strong not skinny’ woman is trending on all forms of social media, weight training may give hope to those who feel that they may never be able to exercise again. Prescribing weight training may replace these individuals’ fear of gaining weight with a desire to gain in the form of muscle. Consequently, this may alter their view of a ‘healthy lifestyle’, and in turn, alter what they consider a ‘healthy physique’.

To forbid exercise during recovery may actually be damaging. It categorises exercise as something that is only linked to your illness, and this would only be condemning it as incompatible with a recovered lifestyle. Therefore, to begin exercise such as weight training in recovery would enable a healthy relationship with an active lifestyle to be re-established. To forbid exercise completely would only make this balance harder to achieve in the sufferer’s future.

However, one must question whether the individual’s desire to take up weight training is for enjoyment and a healthy lifestyle, or because it would feed the obsession that their illness demands. Weight training may only become an alternate obsession for a sufferer. Instead of advocating a balanced lifestyle, they may obsess over achieving a muscular physique, which in turn encourages the kind of behaviour that would only keep their illness alive. This entails anti-social behaviour, stress, anxiety, and even depression. In addition, many weight training enthusiasts follow strict diet plans consisting of high protein and fat, with the absence of carbohydrates. To begin restricting what they eat would be encouraging dangerous behaviour.

So would weight training be dangerous or empowering to someone in recovery? There are definitely advantages and disadvantages, but when considering what would best to help one in recovery, you must consider the individual. As stated before, eating disorders are not to be treated like the common cold. Causation and the way in which they develop vary from each sufferer. Therefore, whether or not weight training is prescribed depends on who the sufferer is. Have they always exercised pre-illness? Did they only ever participate in team-sports prior to their disorder? Is it their illness that wants them to exercise or is it for enjoyment? Numerous questions should be asked of the sufferer, although what is more important are the questions they ask themselves: what is their true motive when introducing exercise? Once these questions are answered, one can decide for themselves whether it is right for them.

Exercise is either a cure or a dangerous trigger, and using it in recovery only serves to emphasise how unique each disorder truly is.

 

If you are, or think you are, suffering with an eating disorder or any other kind of food-related illness please find help using any of these services:

University of St Andrews Student Services : https://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/studentservices/

B-eat, the UK’s eating disorder charity : https://www.b-eat.co.uk/

The Samaritans : http://www.samaritans.org/how-we-can-help-you/contact-us

University of St Andrews Nightline: http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/nightline/