Physical Activity and Binge Eating Recovery – Alex Colianni

Most of the patients that we see with binge eating disorder are not moving at all. Those who have tried exercise programs in the past may have done it primarily to lose weight. Instead of looking at exercise as a tool to help you lose weight fast, think about physical activity as something to look forward to. If you are having fun moving, you are more likely to do it more frequently.
Many patients with binge eating disorder are obese or overweight. I find that patients with larger body sizes typically share one of the following philosophies about physical activity:
  • I don’t fit in at gyms and in other athletic settings.
  • I feel like people are judging me when I do physical activity.
  • I have little desire to exercise.
  • Exercise can bring up feelings of shame for me.
  • I have bad memories from PE class when I was younger.
  • I have too many injuries or health problems. 
These feelings of shame and discomfort are very real. These feelings are valid and they are very common for people who binge eat. I believe that there are ways to reduce these feelings of shame and hopelessness and to explore movement in a healthy way.
Exercise vs. physical activity
Most of the patients that we see with binge eating disorder are not moving at all. Those who have tried exercise programs in the past may have done it primarily to lose weight.
We encourage physical activity for patients struggling with binge eating disorder for a number of reasons. But before we go further, I want to explain the difference between exercise and physical activity (and no, one is not better or worse than the other).
Exercise — has a measurable goal in mind. For example, you exercise to increase your cardiovascular endurance or to improve your flexibility. Examples of exercise are doing strength training with a personal trainer or training for a 5K walk/run.
Physical activity — is moving your body without trying to achieve a measurable goal. True, physical activity may get your heart rate up and make you stronger, but walking the dog or taking a Zumba class isn’t intended to help you reach a measurable goal.  
Change can be hard. It can also be scary. We understand this. To help you add more physical activity into your life, we encourage you to take the following into consideration:
1. Know the benefits of physical activity
As I mentioned before, there are so many benefits to being physically active. Here, I’ll name just a few:
  • We feel better when we exercise — more happy and relaxed.
  • Exercise can reduce the risk of chronic diseases, preventing some cancers, osteoporosis and type 2 diabetes.
  • Exercise can make us feel less depressed and anxious.
  • Exercise helps to prevent or manage high blood pressure.
  • Exercise can help you sleep better.
  • Exercise could help to reduce binge eating habits — particularly if you are seeking professional help to overcome the tendency to binge eat.
Overall, being sedentary is a huge health risk. Think about movement as a way to bring joy to your life. 
2. Smart small when increasing physical activity
Frequently, I see this common mistake: patients at our eating disorder clinic try to add in too much activity too soon. While the intention to exercise more is great, starting an intense exercise program can just make you burn out more quickly. When we push ourselves too hard, exercise may start to seem like a chore and then, we may avoid it altogether.
To start small, I recommend that you first start moving for ten minutes at a time at first. Build up the number of minutes gradually. If you can only move for five minutes, well, that is better than nothing! Keep it up and soon you’ll be moving for longer periods of time.
In addition, you can try to increase your activity in ways that may surprise you by how easy they are:
  1. Take the stairs instead of the elevator when you can.
  2. Take a five-minute walk around the office several times during the work day.
  3. Get the game “Just Dance” or put on music and dance to your favorite songs; have a dance party with your family.
  4. Choose parking spaces that are farther away than normal.
  5. Do some stretching exercises in the evening; as a bonus, this may help you sleep better.

Think about physical activity as something to look forward to.
3. Find an activity you love
Let’s help you find at least one activity that you enjoy. If you are having fun moving, you are more likely to do it more frequently. Consider these questions:

  • What kind of movement is most enjoyable and pleasurable for you?
  • Do you prefer to move in the water or on land?
  • Do you prefer to move alone or with other people?
  • What type of movement did you enjoy as a child?
  • Do you have access to a pool, beach or nearby park?
  • What type of activities fit in with your lifestyle?
  • Do you have any friends that would exercise with you?
  • Would you prefer to exercise with similar-sized people?
Be brave and try several activities until you find an activity that you enjoy. Gentle yoga, biking on a stationary bike, water aerobics and water walking are favorites of many of my patients.
A note for patients: Please talk to your healthcare provider before starting a new physical activity routine. And, if you need help for binge eating disorder, we recommend that you seek treatment for binge eating disorder first — before you start a new physical activity routine.
A note for family members: When it comes to family support in binge eating disorder recovery, we ask family members to be cautious and sensitive. Family members may have good intentions and be trying to help, but even the best intentions can backfire, causing a negative response.
Sources and Further Reading:
  1. American College of Sports Medicine: Obesity and Exercise
  2. Levine, M.D., Marcus, M.D., & Moulton, P. (1996). Exercise in the Treatment of Binge Eating Disorder. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 19, 171-177.
  3. Pendleton, V. R., Goodrick, G. K., Poston, W. S. C., Reeves, R. S. and Foreyt, J. P. (2002), Exercise augments the effects of cognitive-behavioral therapy in the treatment of binge eating. Int. J. Eat. Disord., 31: 172–184.

Alex Colianni is a Clinical Exercise Physiologist at Eating Recovery Center, Illinois. He helps patients create activity plans that will help them go from being sedentary to active.
alex colianni
binge eating disorder
compulsive overeating
erc chicago il

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