How Exercise Can Help Treat Eating Disorders
Exercise as treatment for disordered eating may seem counterintuitive. After all, for many who suffer from an eating disorder, exercise is a trigger or even part of what initially sparked the condition.
“Many people will also pick up disordered eating strategies to manage their sport and fit the ‘accepted’ body image for that sport,” explains Sarahjoy Marsh, a yoga therapist and educator, counselor, and author of Hunger, Hope & Healing: A Yoga Approach to Reclaiming Your Relationship to Your Body and Food.
Marsh said that in her experience, whether it’s imposed by coaches or a desire to fit a certain ideal, many athletes will struggle to bring their weight far below a healthy level just to meet a certain standard or, in the case of running for example, shave a few seconds off their race time.
“I was a high-level athlete when I was younger and that experience added incentive to my own eating disorder,” Marsh said. “Based on my distorted body image, I felt I needed to manage my body composition. When I added gymnastics, competitive swimming, track and field, and field hockey, I felt relieved that I could justify my food restriction or indulgence on behalf of my performance.”
It wasn’t until she discovered yoga that Marsh found a path to recovery.
“The discovery of yoga saved my life,” she said. “I had been struggling with my disordered eating and exercise strategies, anxiety and self-hatred, including painful body image issues, for many years. What I experienced in that first informal ‘yoga’ session was transformational. It shifted my lens from pain and desperation to awe and willingness.”
And this, she explained, is how a more gentle and mindful form of exercise can help successfully lead those struggling with an eating disorder down the road to recovery.
Since her first experience with yoga, Marsh has gone on to study the practice deeply and now also holds a master’s degree in transpersonal counseling and art therapy and has even studied interpersonal neurobiology. And while it was yoga that left a lasting impression with her, she says any form of physical activity you can practice mindfully can help aid the recovery process.
How Mindful Exercise Can Help You Heal
What’s one of the most important lessons Marsh learned? That mindful exercise helps us to arrive at a new understanding of ourselves. It helps us understand that we aren’t “bad” or “wrong,” “flawed” or “inadequate.” This understanding, Marsh says, is an important key to recovery.
“We developed our addictive behaviors in an attempt to soothe pain,” she explained. “And now our symptoms are providing an opportunity for us to take up the journey of recovery, which is also the journey of self-compassion, self-discovery and an expansion into our life potential.”
In the initial stages of recovery, for most, yoga will provide a place of refuge, Marsh said.
“For me, it was an essential time out from the onslaught of my inner dialogue,” she added. “Yoga also provides a foundation for developing self-kindness and curiosity to move toward recovery. It is difficult to attempt recovery from addiction, anxiety or self-harm behaviors if you’re in a place of self-hatred and feeling like a failure.”
That’s not all yoga has to offer, though. Marsh said it’s also a useful tool because it helps reconnect us to our breath.
“Breathing naturally and optimally restores our internal eco-system — our brain, nervous systems, body and mind,” she explained. “Dis-regulated breathing — triggered when our limbic brains register fear and prepare us to fight-flee-freeze-or-collapse — conditions our biochemistry toward stress, anxiety and the imperative to seek relief from these things, even with painful or self-destructive behaviors. As yoga stretches specific muscles and cultivates new body postures, we learn to breathe naturally again by feeling the innate body intelligence that knows how to breathe us.”
Additionally, Marsh said, yoga sets a strong foundation for recovery that eventually allows for healthy self-inquiry through self-empathy, forgiveness and freedom. This helps us re-discover our potential, develop new skills and, perhaps most importantly, see ourselves in a more compassionate, “non-shameful” light.
What’s important to note is, the benefits of yoga for treatment of disordered eating aren’t only based on Marsh’s personal experience. Marsh says that understanding the basics of neuroscience can help to highlight exactly how the practice can serve as a powerful tool for healing and recovery.
“To understand what lies beneath disordered eating, it can help to understand the three different components of your brain — the limbic and reptilian brains, and the neo-cortex,” she explained. “The first two aspects are often considered the ‘lower’ or more basic evolutionary aspects of ourselves, and when they are out of balance, can encourage disordered eating as they try to soothe themselves.”
The goal of yoga therapy, Marsh said, is to nurture and soothe the limbic and reptilian brains so that an individual can engage the neo-cortex, which best allows us to live in the present and express compassion for others and ourselves.
“The neo-cortex is the aspect of the brain that developed most recently in the evolution of humans. It is the source of intuition, courage and confidence,” Marsh said.
So, this calming and intuitive form of exercise is a helpful part of the healing process, but for someone who wants to use it as a serious way to take that first step on the road to recovery, where exactly should they start?
Marsh says that becoming part of a community is an important first step.
“Sometimes figuring out the first step is the hardest thing in recovery. So to start, I recommend picking up my book,” she said. “This will lead you through easy to understand steps toward recovery. And join our Facebook group for support throughout reading the book. Having a community of others going through a similar experience is so important. Particularly in disordered eating and other addictions, these conditions are hidden in secrecy and shame, so it’s important to know that you aren’t going through this alone.”
She also suggested working with a professional who can help guide your progress.
“Consider finding a yoga therapist in your community or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for additional advice,” Marsh said.
You can also implement the following practices from her book outlined below.
Getting in the GAP
Getting in the GAP refers to that sliver of presence between thought and reactivity. We get Grounded in the tangible here and now. Wield our Attention toward what is occurring with our senses, in the Present moment. Being Present becomes a safe harbor. Getting Grounded in the here and now can represent feelings of significant anxiety, especially if having to feel your body or your emotions is frightening. With this, we begin mindfulness on neutral sensations from the tangible present moment, as it is, without it needing to be changed or improved upon. Neutral implies sensations we can experience without having to judge or react (so for instance, I don’t recommend focusing on a body pain like a sore muscle in this exercise).
Mindfulness choices here could include: Sound and the space in which sound exists, or the texture of the ground (or furniture) beneath us. I’ve included both of those as examples below.
- Choose an object for Getting Grounded.
- Repeatedly direct Attention to this one tangible event. For moments when mind habits intrude, without judgment, simply usher Attention back to the object of Grounding.
- Continue as you train yourself in becoming Present.
Focus on Sound: This choice can be helpful if you notice you have a tendency to isolate or pull yourself inward. Sound lifts us into the immediate here and now. Acknowledging the space in which sound exists lifts us into the larger pulse of life.
Focus on Ground: This can be helpful if you tend to soar off into emotional despair, become easily ungrounded, or feel overwhelmed. Bringing attention to the places where we are right now connected to the ground beneath us, in whatever form that takes, trains attention to come down, rather than to soar off.
And finally, Marsh offers several specific steps you can take to directly nurture your limbic brain:
“Seek behaviors that soothe you as a mammal. Develop connection with other safe mammals, which could be people, but also pets. Take part in activities that soothe your senses: admire the beauty in nature, listen to a favorite piece of music, engage your senses through painting, photography or gardening.”
“And to soothe both your limbic and your reptilian brains, move your physical body with a focus on your breathing. In particular, yoga is useful here because it transforms how you breathe, along with how you move. These shifts redirect your inner dialogue, so you develop new brain pathways that can transform your disordered eating into a healthy relationship with your body and brain.”
“Yoga — or any physical activity you are able to practice mindfully — revives your instinctual ability to nourish yourself through breathing, moving, playing and resting.”