Although it may seem counterintuitive to encourage individuals already obsessed with weight to exercise, a new University of Florida study shows that the psychological benefits of exercise may be an effective prevention or intervention for eating disorders.
“When it comes to eating disorders, exercise has always been seen as a negative because people use it as a way to control their weight. But for most people, exercise is a very positive thing,” said UF exercise psychologist Heather Hausenblas, Ph.D., a co-author of the study.
“Our results show it’s not necessarily bad for people with disordered eating to engage in exercise. The effects on self-esteem, depression, mood and body image can reduce the risk of eating pathologies.”
Excluding compulsive exercisers who might encounter further harm, Hausenblas notes that individuals who have or are at risk for eating disorders could benefit from healthy “non-compulsive” exercise.
For the study, 539 average-weight students were surveyed by Hausenblas and her team; the majority were not at risk for eating disorders. The researchers then evaluated the participants’ drive to be slim, their exercise routines and risk for exercise addiction, and then used statistical models to find possible relationships. The results revealed that the psychological effects of exercise (more than the physical benefits) could help prevent and treat eating disorders.
The study could have a far-reaching impact, said Danielle Symons Downs, Ph.D., director of the Exercise Psychology Laboratory at The Pennsylvania State University.
“The public health implications of this study are important,” said Symons Downs. “This research is important for understanding the complex interactions between exercise behavior and eating pathology, and it can assist clinicians with better understanding how to intervene with and treat eating pathology.”
Beyond offering an affordable treatment to address the needs of people with eating disorders, exercise therapies also could help relieve the burden of such diseases on the health-care system, Hausenblas said.
“If a patient is extremely underweight, you’re not going to have them exercising two or three hours a day. But once they’re at a stable level, exercise could have a big positive effect,” she said.
Hausenblas would like to conduct another study that would follow individuals at risk for eating disorders over several months to evaluate how exercise affects their symptoms.
“We’d like to assess them over time, and we hope to see their risk factors go down,” she said.
The study is published in the January issue of European Eating Disorders Review.
Source: University of Florida