7 reasons to embrace movement in eating disorder recovery

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Many people in eating disorder recovery struggle with an unhealthy relationship with exercise, but this doesn’t have to be the case forever—there’s always time to heal your relationship with exercise. And we’re not talking about using exercise as a tool for weight loss, or “outcome-focused exercise”, which can be harmful and anxiety-provoking. We mean mindful movement, or moving for the sake of joy and mind-body connection. 

That said, you should never begin exercising without approval from your treatment team. They will help you integrate mindful movement into your recovery plan in a safe and individualized way.

Last updated on 
December 17, 2021
In this article

What is mindful movement?

Mindful movement, as opposed to outcome-focused movement, underscores the pleasure of moving your body. It encourages you to become more aware of your body and what it is telling you, while shifting your attention into the present. During mindful movement, participants try to tune into their feelings and breathing.

While engaging in mindful movement, you check in with yourself periodically to see what it needs and how it’s feeling, which can help you improve your mind-body connection. You only participate in movement that makes you feel better, as opposed to forcing yourself to exercise for other reasons, like weight loss. 

Mindful movement is done with the following emotions and practices: (1)

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

After a significant amount of time spent exercising for appearance– or weight-based reasons, mindful movement might sound foreign, and that’s okay. It may take a while to adjust to this change. If you aren’t sure where to start, here are some examples of mindful activities:

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

Why you should embrace movement

There are countless reasons to make movement a part of your routine during eating disorder recovery, but we’ve included the top seven here.

1. It’s fun

People often forget to take joy into account when exercising because they’re so focused on losing weight, losing fat, building muscle, or other outcomes. 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 collaborating with your team.

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. They might not tune into their body’s cues and, in turn, give it the type of movement it needs. 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.

3. Reduces your stress

Regular exercise can reduce stress by decreasing levels of cortisol and adrenaline, the body’s two main stress hormones. Movement also produces endorphins, which are hormones that improve mood and relieve pain. (2)

4. Improves your sleep

Engaging in physical activity can help improve your sleep, helping you fall asleep more quickly at night and stay asleep for longer. There are a few reasons for this, including: (3)

  • Exercise can increase your sleep drive, which means your body will push you to go to sleep
  • Exposure to natural light helps regulate your body’s sleep-wake cycle
  • Exercise reduces anxiety and stress, which can help you sleep better

5. Enhances your social connections with others

Whether you join a meet-up group for a hike or sign up for a sports league, exercise can increase your self-esteem and reduce social withdrawal.4 Group workouts are a great way to meet new friends who share your interests. And exercising is even more fun when you have friends to share that time with.

6. Improves your mental health and mood

Mindful movement can have tremendous benefits for your mental health, including: (4)

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

7. Reduces your risk of heart disease and cancer

Regular physical activity can decrease your risk of heart disease by strengthening your heart muscle, improving circulation, and reducing cholesterol. It can also decrease your blood pressure. Furthermore, exercise can decrease your chance of certain cancers, such as lung, uterine, breast, and colon. (5)

Within Health works with our clients to help them recapture the joy of mindful movement during their eating disorder treatment, and recovery. To learn more, read about our treatment.

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.

Resources

  1. Calogero, R.M., & Pedtrotty-Stump, K.N. (2010). Chapter 25: Incorporating Exercise into Eating Disorder Treatment and Recovery: Cultivating a Mindful Approach, Treatment of Eating Disorders (pp 425-441). Academic Press. 
  2. Harvard Health Publishing: Harvard Medical School. (2020). Exercising to Relax.
  3. Cleveland Clinic. (2020). How Exercise Affects Your Sleep.
  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. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2021). Benefits of Exercise.

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