Can Exercise Help Eating Disorder Sufferers?

The term ‘eating disorder’ sends a shudder of horror through every modern parent. The spiralling obsession with physical perfection, egged on by an insidiously dangerous online community [1] is seeing more and more of our young people fall prey to the world’s deadliest mental illnesses. Anorexia and bulimia claim hundreds of lives worldwide each year, and it’s estimated that over half of all Americans personally know someone suffering from an eating disorder [2]. And it’s getting worse. While the world scrambles to apportion blame [3] and agonize over causes, treatment for eating disorders remains a touch-and-go issue. It has been proposed that exercise could be introduced as a healthier means of helping those suffering from eating disorders – but this is a controversial treatment which would need a lot of fine-management to bring about correctly. Here, we explore the pros and cons of exercise programs for those suffering from eating disorders.




Let’s start with the problematic aspects of putting eating disorder sufferers onto an exercise regime. The major issue with many eating disorders is that the sufferer prioritizes their appearance (or how they perceive their appearance to be) over their physical health. They thus take things which, if done correctly, can be quite healthy – i.e. a calorie controlled diet – to dangerous extremes in the pursuit of physical perfection. If one attempts to wean a bulimic or an anorexic off an excessively restrictive diet and onto exercise as a form of weight control instead, one runs the risk of creating a mindset which abuses exercise in quite as dangerous a manner as the initial extreme dieting. Nasty complications [4] can arise just as much from someone who purges calories through excessive exercise as through vomiting and laxatives. Conditions like ‘Exercise Bulimia’ [5], ‘Exercise Addiction’, and even ‘Bigorexia’ are becoming increasingly recognized within the medical community. The bottom line is: if some is willing to sacrifice physical health for a certain physique, then recommending exercise as an alternative method of achieving that physique is not likely to have particularly positive long-term results. However, if the patient undertakes the exercise in order to improve their health and wellbeing (rather than to sculpt their body), then they can gain a good deal of benefit. The crucial factor is the attitude with which the exercise is performed.


As everyone is well aware, exercise has a plethora of incredible benefits for physical health. However, for those already obsessed with weight-control and body image, it can become another dangerous tool in their body-sculpting arsenal. This is readily acknowledged by most psychologists and psychiatrists within the field. Nonetheless, studies have (cautiously) shown that – if undertaken with emphasis on health rather than looks – exercise can be an effective preventative and even intervention for those with body image issues [6]. Exercise is fantastic at improving mental health in a variety of ways [7]. It gives a natural mood boost, it helps the brain to function as it should, and it imbues participants which a kind of self-confidence which is invaluable for keeping eating disorders at bay. If exercise is encouraged for at-risk groups, with an emphasis on health rather than appearance, then it’s possible that it could improve not only the physical but the mental health of these individuals. This would in turn cause any nascent eating disorders to potentially recede. As always, however, this must be done very carefully. As soon as signs of excessively using exercise in a manner detrimental to health are spotted, then it’s very important to raise this with the professionals as soon as possible! Unfortunately, exercise in the modern mindset is associated more with physical appearance than it is with physical health. If this association can be sidelined, however, then there’s a lot of potential for eating disorder sufferers to get an enormous amount of benefit from it.


[1] Social Issues Research Centre, “Totally In Control – the rise of pro-ana/pro-mia websites”

[2] South Carolina Department of Mental Health, “Eating Disorder Statistics”

[3] Denis Campbell, “Stark rise in eating disorders blamed on overexposure to celebrities’ bodies”, The Guardian, Jun 2015

[4], “Medical Issues From Anorexia, Bulimia, and Other Eating Disorders”

[5] Johanna Cox, “Exercise Bulimia: How Much Is Too Much?”, Elle, Jan 2010

[6] University of Florida, “Exercise could help prevent, treat eating disorders”, Jan 2011

[7] Royal College of Psychiatrists, “Physical Activity and Mental Health”

After initially working in the health care sector helping people with diet and fitness, Jen Gillan decided to take a career break to get married and start a family, once her two children arrived she decided to take up writing in order to work from home and support her family, she now writes on a range of health and fitness topics – including mental health and wellbeing.


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