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7 reasons to embrace movement in eating disorder recovery

Eating disorders can be highly disruptive conditions. They can distort someone’s relationship with food, body image, and how they think about exercise or physical movement. 

Many people with eating disorders—and otherwise—see exercise only as a means to control or lose weight or achieve a certain body shape. Some experience the opposite effect: they may avoid movement as part of their condition, which comes with its own slate of potential impacts on mental and physical health.

But just like preparing and eating food, participating in physical movement can be a joyful experience and help you connect more deeply to your body in a healthy and healing way. And just as it’s possible to reassess your relationship with food, you can reassess your relationship with physical activity

Mindful movement is a practice that can help. With some guidance from your treatment team, patience, practice, and the right mindset, it's possible to integrate mindful movement into your recovery plan to help foster a healthier relationship with movement and your body.

7
 minute read
Last updated on 
May 30, 2024
May 30, 2024
Reasons to embrace movement in eating disorder recovery
In this article

What is mindful movement?

Akin to mindful eating and other mindfulness practices, mindful movement is a mental health practice that involves an objective point of view and tuning into the present moment. Practices like breath awareness and other tools help someone zero in on their mind-body connection.

From this perspective, people are then asked to focus on the sensation of moving their bodies and how certain movements make them feel right here and now. Hopefully, this helps emphasize the pleasures of movement or simply ground someone in their physical connection with their body.

While engaging in mindful movement, you check in with yourself periodically to see what your body is asking you for and how it’s feeling. This can help improve the mind-body connection, which can have a wide-reaching beneficial impact.

The hope is that, eventually, you’ll be able to more clearly “hear” your body or understand how it wants to move and the amount and intensity of movement it wants at any given time. 

What does mindful movement feel like?

The mind is a very powerful tool. In many instances, it can “override” the body, forcing it to push past natural pain thresholds and ignore neurological signals to stop. This is frequently described in snappy—and dangerous—slogans like “no pain, no gain” or “the pain you feel today is the strength you feel tomorrow.” 

But it’s also akin to how the fight or flight response works—a mechanism the body uses in response to perceived threats, danger, or immediate stressors.6 Using exercise as a means to a specific end allows the mind to call the shots, inviting this type of stressful internal atmosphere. Or it can work the opposite way, putting so much pressure on movement that someone works to avoid it altogether.

On the other hand, mindful movement focuses on the quality of movement rather than the quantity. It rejuvenates rather than depletes; alleviates stress rather than amplifies it; provides genuine joy or pleasure; and enhances the mind-body connection.7

It’s also important not to apply judgment to movement. This not only helps you get away from moving to hit certain benchmarks but allows you to connect with your body more deeply. Some days, you may want to move more. Some days, you may want to move less. Without applying judgment, you can stay present with your body and what it needs right here and right now.

Types of mindful movements

There's no specific group of physical activities that encompass "mindful movement." Instead, the practice is thought to be any type of movement performed with a sense of:1

  • Attention
  • Purpose
  • Awareness
  • Self-compassion
  • Acceptance
  • Joy

Some common activities people perform as part of mindful movement practice include:

  • Walking meditation
  • Yoga
  • Strength and resistance training
  • Dancing
  • Jogging
  • Swimming
  • Tai Chi
  • Climbing
  • Hiking
  • Cycling
  • Group sports, like soccer or basketball

Mindful movement doesn’t even have to be tied to a certain “activity.” It can be something like playing with your children, going birdwatching, or going out with friends. Anything that helps foster a mind-body connection can be mindful movement.

Why you should embrace mindful movement in recovery

There are many benefits mindful movement can bring to the eating disorder recovery process. Here are just seven to start.‍

1. It’s fun

People often forget to take joy into account when exercising because they’re so focused on losing weight, building muscle, or reaching some other goal-oriented outcome. But movement can be extremely fun, especially when you take the time to figure out which activities appeal to you.

You might find that you really love how dancing makes you feel, or if you are more of a team sport kind of person, you may find pleasure in learning how to move as one alongside your teammates. Taking some time to explore the kinds of movements that make your mind and body happy is an important—and joyful!—part of the mindful movement process.

2. It’s a chance to reconnect with your body

Many people—not just people in eating disorder recovery—have a fraught relationship with their body. There are many reasons people have become so disconnected from their inner voice, including:

  • Societal demands around when and how long people should work or take meal breaks
  • The pervasive messages of toxic diet culture
  • The largely sedentary lifestyle many people fall into as a member of the working world

These outer pressures can cut people off from tuning into their body’s cues, and this can result in unhealthy ideas and practices around physical movement. But when you engage in mindful movement, you have the chance to improve your mind-body connection and become more attuned to your thoughts, feelings, moods, and more. You can then use this connection as a powerful source of guidance.

3. Reduces your stress

Physical movement can reduce stress by decreasing levels of cortisol and adrenaline, the body’s two main stress hormones that can wreak havoc on the nervous system.2 And it doesn't take a vigorous workout routine to achieve this benefit.

Many types of movement can work to alleviate stress and produce endorphins, which are hormones that improve mood and relieve pain.2 Many people view walking, jogging, and stretching as a type of meditation practice. And even a 20-minute stroll can produce these same stress-reducing effects.2

4. Improves your sleep

Engaging in physical activity can improve your sleep hygiene, helping you fall asleep more quickly at night and stay asleep for longer by:3

  • Increasing your sleep drive, which means your body will push you to go to sleep
  • Exposing you to more natural light (when mindfully moving outside), which helps regulate your body’s sleep-wake cycle
  • Reducing anxiety and stress, which often inhibit sleep

Improving your sleep hygiene can also have a powerful ripple effect, going on to benefit many other aspects of mental and physical health.

5. Enhances your social connections with others

Many people enjoy physical activity more when sharing those experiences with friends. And there are many ways to turn mindful movement into a group activity.

You can sign up for a team sport or join a dance center, but you can also join meet-up groups for activities like hiking or yoga. This type of outreach can increase your self-esteem and reduce social withdrawal.4

6. Improves your mental health and mood

Some people prefer more individual types of movement, such as jogging or even cleaning. This, too, can help create a positive mindset by occupying the body and freeing up the mind, whether to process what's going on in someone's life or just to take a break from it all.

But whether enjoyed solo or in a group, mindful movement can have many other tremendous benefits for your mental health, including:4

  • Reduced anxiety
  • Reduced depression
  • Improved mood
  • Enhanced self-esteem
  • Improved cognitive functioning

7. Improves your physical health

Participating in regular physical activity has many physical advantages, as well. Among them, it can:5, 8, 9

  • Decrease your risk of heart disease by strengthening heart muscle
  • Improve circulation
  • Reduce cholesterol
  • Decrease your blood pressure
  • Decrease your chance of certain cancers, such as lung, uterine, breast, and colon
  • Improves bone health
  • Helps regulate hormones
  • Improves strength and balance (helps prevent falling/improve functionality)

The long list of benefits is why many people start regularly exercising to begin with. The important thing to remember is not to exercise just to achieve these benefits. Stop or modify your routine if you receive messages from your body that a certain type of movement is painful or no longer working.

Mindful movement helps remind people of this: Exercise shouldn't be about the destination, even when that destination includes many physical benefits, but it should be about the journey, of helping your body feel good every day.

Finding help for an eating disorder

Focusing on how your body feels is an important step in eating disorder recovery and also in self-healing in general. But if you or a loved one are struggling with an eating disorder or struggling with a relapse in recovery, it's important to seek out appropriate care.

At Within Health, we have a multidisciplinary team of experts who help create treatment plans that incorporate all aspects of mental, physical, and emotional recovery. That includes helping our clients recapture the joy of mindful movement during their eating disorder treatment and recovery.

To learn more, read about our treatment or contact us today.

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Disclaimer about weight loss drugs: Within does not endorse the use of any weight loss drug or behavior and seeks to provide education on the insidious nature of diet culture. We understand the complex nature of disordered eating and eating disorders and strongly encourage anyone engaging in these behaviors to reach out for help as soon as possible. No statement should be taken as healthcare advice. All healthcare decisions should be made with your individual healthcare provider.

Resources

  1. Calogero, R. M., & Pedtrotty-Stump, K. N. (2010). Chapter 25 - Incorporating Exercise into Eating Disorder Treatment and Recovery: Cultivating a Mindful Approach. In M. Maine, B. Hartman McGilley, & D. W. Bunnell (Eds.), Treatment of Eating Disorders (pp. 425–441). Academic Press.
  2. Exercising to Relax. (2020). Harvard Health Publishing. Accessed January 2024.
  3. How Exercise Affects Your Sleep. (2020). Cleveland Clinic. Accessed January 2024.
  4. Sharma, A., Madaan, V., & Petty, F. D. (2006). Exercise for mental health. Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 8(2), 106. 
  5. Benefits of Exercise. (2021). U.S. National Library of Medicine. Accessed January 2024.
  6. What Happens to Your Body During the Fight-or-Flight Response? (2019, December 8). Cleveland Clinic. Accessed February 2024. 
  7. Calogero, R., Pedrotty, K. (2007). Daily Practices for Mindful Exercise. In: L’Abate, L. (eds). Low-Cost Approaches to Promote Physical and Mental Health. Springer, New York, NY.
  8. Carter, M. I., & Hinton, P. S. (2014). Physical activity and bone health. Missouri Medicine, 111(1), 59–64.
  9. Ennour-Idrissi, K., Maunsell, E., & Diorio, C. (2015). Effect of physical activity on sex hormones in women: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Breast Cancer Research, 17(1), 139.

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