Why Strength Training Can Save You From Your Eating Disorder
Who Is This For?
Before beginning, I want to make sure to get this out of the way.
This post is not for anyone in severe need of refeeding or weight restoration. This is not for anyone who is at a stage in their eating disorder where they are not yet eligible for psychotherapeutic treatment (i.e. severely low %IBW or comorbid mental/mood disorders).
If you are so low in body weight and so calorie-restricted that bone density and hormonal issues are accruing, jumping straight into weight-bearing exercise might not be smart (unless you have a capable trainer, of which you’ll find some of the BEST here).
With that said, it still could be for you later on down the road even if you are in need of weight restoration, so don’t fully dismiss this just yet. Strength training is an amazing tool that will help you in virtually every single area of your life (and, by virtue of that, your recovery).
Why Strength Training is the G.O.A.T.
When I was 17, I competed in my first bodybuilding show. After dieting hard for 18 weeks pre-contest, the ensuing “post-contest binge eating” shot my weight up 30 pounds in one week. You can read more about that here.
I then did my second bodybuilding show when I was 20. This involved an even greater degree of restriction, which I thought I could “handle” at the time. But, of course, I couldn’t (really, no one can) and the post-contest binge period was just as bad, if not worse in many ways (because this particular period was much more defined by extreme depression and suicidality than the first).
But there was one thing both times that saved me from falling down the rabbit hole of constant, non-stop binge eating and depression. Strength training.
There’s two major reasons strength training was such a blessing in my recovery:
Strength Training Focuses on What Your Body Can Do, Not How Your Body Can Look
One of the most relieving aspects of moving from bodybuilding to a more strength-training focus both times after my shows was the body-positive message it sent. Rather than fixating on how much I weigh or whether I could see veins in my abs or a certain muscle group looked symmetrical with the rest of my body, I could focus instead on performance.
That’s so, so important in all of this. The idea of maximizing performance sends a crucial message in the context of ED recovery. It’s somewhat of a literal application of the goal in recovery to be process-oriented and focused on the here and now.
Think about it. One big reason recovery can be so hard is that we judge our recovery processes based on external factors.
Did I eat a clean, healthy diet this week?
Did I cut out all nighttime binge eating this past month?
With goals like this, it’s super easy to be critical of ourselves, because A. those are hard goals to hit unless you’re already far into your recovery, and B. they focus on what we see externally and pay no mind to the thought of internal progress.
If all month you were able to consciously bring your awareness to the present moment in times of stress; and all month you were able to re-frame negative self-talk; yet you gave in to binge eating one night, you technically failed the latter goal of “cutting out all nighttime binge eating”. But in what world is a whole month of improved mindfulness and improved ability to combat negative thoughts a failure? Certainly not mine.
In much the same way, strength training lets you set some hard and fast, process-oriented goals. As long as you’re getting into the gym and grinding, you’re golden. You don’t need to be a certain weight or look a certain way to be successful.
Strength Training “Lets” You Eat More Food
Now, admittedly, when I first heard this reason brought to my attention, I was skeptical. People shouldn’t have to justify why they’re eating more food.
With that said, it’s not always realistic to expect that mental paradigm shift to take place immediately. For many people, it takes going through this intermediary step, where you have something positive like strength training as your justification for eating more. If you have to use the motivation of gaining strength as your rationale for upping food intake (assuming you engage in a lot of restrictive practices), that’s just fine!
How should you be exercising?
While I am a nutritionist and not a personal trainer, or exercise science expert, I can definitely tell you there is a right way and wrong way to go about training.
The essence of it is this: Focus on doing the big, compound, “functional” movements and execute them with proper form. Progress appropriately over time and allow yourself enough recovery. The main theme of that is this: Be honest with yourself. Lift intensely but intelligently.
If you’re looking for specific recommendations of how to incorporate exercise into your recovery path, I go over that in great depth in my upcoming book 100 Days of Food Freedom, which you can check out here.
I hope this has all been somewhat helpful for you. If you have further questions, don’t hesitate to reach out to me via my contact form.