Although it may seem counterintuitive, exercise could be used as an intervention for -- or even a way to prevent -- eating disorders.
“When it comes to eating disorders, exercise has always been seen as a negative because people use it as a way to control their weight," says Heather Hausenblas, an exercise psychologist at the University of Florida. " But for most people, exercise is a very positive thing.”
Hausenblas says results of her research show it's not necessarily bad for people with disordered eating to engage in exercise. In fact, she says, "The effects on self-esteem, depression, mood and body image can reduce the risk of eating pathologies.”
Psychology of exercise
Researchers surveyed 539 normal-weight college students, most of whom were not at risk for eating disorders. They evaluated the students’ drive to be thin, along with their exercise habits and risk for exercise dependence and used statistical models to find potential relationships.
They found that, more than its physical benefits, the psychological effects of exercise could help prevent and treat eating disorders. The findings are reported in European Eating Disorders Review.
“The public health implications of this study are important,” says Danielle Symons Downs, director of the Exercise Psychology Laboratory at Penn State. “This research is important for understanding the complex interactions between exercise behavior and eating pathology, and it can assist clinicians with better understanding how to intervene with and treat eating pathology.”
Beyond offering an affordable treatment to address the needs of people with eating disorders, exercise therapies also could help relieve the burden of such diseases on the health-care system, Hausenblas says.
“If a patient is extremely underweight, you’re not going to have them exercising two or three hours a day. But once they’re at a stable level, exercise could have a big positive effect,” she says.
Hausenblas hopes to launch another study that would follow at-risk individuals over a period of several months to see if exercise impacts their symptoms. “We’d like to assess them over time, and we hope to see their risk factors go down.”
Researchers at the University of Kentucky and University of Arizona collaborated on the study.