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Exercise & Eating Disorders

Written by Kristian. J | Exercise Physiologist, PsychPhys™

Eating disorders, including bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa, are common psychiatric disorders that impact the lives of young women, and cause a significant level of mortality and morbidity. (1) As these eating disorders contribute to high cost of treatment and added burden to the healthcare system, a cost-effective and efficacious treatment is required in order to enhance outcomes going forward. (2) 

A commonly utilised treatment in other chronic health conditions, such as mental health conditions (e.g., anxiety & depression), have included an exercise-based intervention which have shown considerable benefits. (3) Although the benefits of exercise have been well established, it is still often overlooked as a treatment tool in eating disorders. 

However, a plethora of evidence is emerging that is showing, not only the safety of closely supervised and nutritionally supported exercise, but the array of physical and psychological benefits from long-term exposure. (4) This can be shown in numerous literature reviews and a meta-analysis supporting the safety of an exercise program for all eating disorder types if the nutritional needs are all met. (5-7) 

Additionally, other studies have displayed that an exercise program can help facilitate weight gain in anorexia nervosa, decrease obligatory exercise attitudes and behaviours, increase physical strength, lower drive for thinness and bulimic symptoms, decrease body dissatisfaction, reverse cardiac abnormalities, and enhance quality of life. (4) Therefore, it is recommended that exercise be part of routine treatment as it is a safe and effective form of therapy to help those suffering from eating disorders. 


  1. Pritts SD, Susman J. Diagnosis of eating disorders in primary care. Am Fam Physician. 2003;67:297–304.  
  2. Crow SJ, Nyman JA. The cost-effectiveness of anorexia nervosa treatment. Int J Eat Disord. 2004;35:155–60.
  3. Hekmati Pour N, Hojjati H. Effects of Exercise on Mental Health of Elderly . J Holist Nurs Midwifery. 2016; 26 (4) :36-42
  4. Cook B, Wonderlich S, Mitchell J, Thompson R, Sherman R, Mccallum K. Exercise in Eating Disorders Treatment. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2016;48(7):1408-1414.
  5. Ng LWC, Ng DP, Wong WP. Is supervised exercise training safe in patients with anorexia nervosa? A meta-analysis Physiotherapy. 2013;99:1–11.
  6. Hausenblas HA, Cook BJ, Chittester NI. Can exercise treat eating disorders? Exerc Sport Sci Rev. 2008;36(1):43–7. 
  7. Moola FJ, Gairdner SE, Amara CE. Exercise in the care of patients with anorexia nervosa: A systematic review of the literature. Ment Health Phys Act. 2013;6:59–68.