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Weightlifting as an Intervention for Anorexia Nervosa and Other Eating Disorders

There has been some amazing research conducted on Weightlifting as an adjunct Intervention for trauma recovery. Additional research is demonstrating the same transformative impact of weightlifting on Eating Disorders.


Research from the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Eating Disorders has formally recognized the positive impact of weightlifting in the ED recovery process. Weightlifting allows the individual to focus on feeling strong and empowered rather than feeling helpless or like they are failing to meet certain standards.


Women who begin weightlifting report finally seeing their body as something powerful and beautiful as opposed to the powerless hold eating disorders often have. As the body gets stronger, so does the mind and agency!


With weightlifting, goals become based on technique, form, mind-body awareness and loads lifted making this a process oriented sport as opposed to the goal oriented sports that we often see associated with concurrent mental health struggles.


Exercise has been used as a form of punishment by many people who strive to burn off the calories they've eaten. With weightlifting, fueling is just as important as the act of lifting itself. In order to get stronger, weightlifters often become more concerned about fueling for performance than they do about fueling for a certain physique. The focus is shifted from one of, "how do I need to exercise to get weight off?" to, "How can I work towards putting weight on the bar?".


The mind-body awareness, proprioceptive and neuromuscular feedback we get with each lift brings us back into our body. Many trauma survivors and those with eating disorders report feeling disconnected from this experience, stating that their bodies don't feel like a safe place to be. Weightlifting slowly strengthens this sense of safety and connection and allows us to step outside our head for a while and live with our body.


Associated anxiety can often be lessened with a good weightlifting session as well even furthering the sensation of being present and connected with body and breath. Research has demonstrated increased parasympathetic nervous system activation with habitual weightlifting sessions. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for rest, recovery and relaxation. Anxiety keeps us in a heightened state of arousal that often lessens our window of tolerance and ability to cope. Simply put, weightlifting increases our window of tolerance and allows us to live in a more peaceful space.


One of the similarities that exist between the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system is the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is part of the sensory-somatic system, a subdivision of the peripheral nervous system. It is a big player in our ability to relax and rest. It holds the key to experiencing joy, peace and feeling present. When the body is stressed the brain sends signals to the sympathetic nervous system to react, fight, flight, freeze... It is only when the body is signaled by hormones that communicate safety that the vagus nerve can get to work at relaxing the body. For those who live in a chronic state of unrest, we most likely aren't able to wreak the benefits of a healthy functioning vagus nerve.


Other than relaxing the soul and body the vagus nerve plays some other important roles such as:

- It reduces the inflammatory response throughout our system.

- Helps produce new brain cells.

- It decreases depression and anxiety and lifts our mood.

- It assists in memory.

- It raises your immunity.

- It raises the level of endorphins.

- It helps reduce chronic pain.

- It allows us to feel joy and peace.


Weightlifting is a great way to indirectly activate the vagus nerve. We utilize deep diaphragmatic breathing and learn to contract/release muscles. We increase blood pressure when we perform each rep and our body experiences increased levels of oxygen uptake. All of these small factors can have a similar effect on our body as Yoga and Meditation if we are in the right mindset.


By incorporating mindset training visualization exercises into weightlifting we can access that stimulation even more. Seeings yourself grow stronger and more capable is one of the most empowering feelings in the world.


Lifting weights is something that every woman should do, regardless of a history of trauma or eating disorders. For those experiencing struggle and disordered patterns of eating, lifters report life opening up a little more. If you haven't been weight lifting, now might be the time to get started! You don't have to struggle alone and you really don't have to just do YOGA to reap the benefits of mind-body work and breath!


Let's lift some heavy weights!


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