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Resistance Training and Recovery from an Eating Disorder

EATING DISORDER NEWS & REVIEW:

By Columnist Eleni Psillakis – Eating Disorder Educator and Filex 2016 Inspiration Award Winner:

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The hardest habit for a person suffering from an eating disorder or disordered eating to break is the regime that makes them feel ‘safe’. Even though negative consequences result from regimes such as restricted dieting, excessive exercising and bingeing, or purging, laxative use and the abuse of other substances.

Someone who has an eating disorder bases their whole sense of worth on adhering to these regimes. As a result, their body image becomes distorted and low self-worth becomes the driving force for negative behaviours. For example, I felt in control as long as I ran 10 km, twice a day and ate very little.

The Realisation that Change was Needed

The moment my GP told me that I would go to a hospital, on bed rest and a feeding program, was the moment I knew I had to try to break away from this debilitating disorder. The thought of change scared me. But, the thought of hospital and ‘losing control’ scared me even more. I feared that if I didn’t have some input into trying to recover, then the worth that I felt in myself would be lost. I also thought that if I gained weight that I wouldn’t have my parent’s attention anymore, as I had felt unheard or unloved before this.

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Photo Credit: Eleni Psillakis, 2016.

Top left: Eleni 12-months before reaching her lowest weight of 39kgs.

Bottom left: Eleni competing in 1984, just 2-years after starting resistance training.

Right: Eleni taking out the INBA City Nationals.

Elements of Eating Disorder Recovery

Last year, I participated in a forum of women that had recovered or were recovering from an eating disorder. The common elements assisting recovery were having a sense of responsibility for recovery, and having a choice and access to education. My decision to take up strength training and to stop running as a means of gaining weight was frightening, but the thought of going to the hospital was more so. I did not want to live as I was but at the same time did not want to let go of it. I asked my GP for one more chance.

I walked into a gym weighing 39kg and aged 19 and a half and said to the manager, “I need help. I need to put on weight. I want you to stop me weighing myself if you see me doing so and to stop me doing any aerobic classes.” It also took a huge effort for me not to do this at home. Eating disorders are serious mental health issues that have severe physical health consequences.

The thought of embarking on my new journey petrified me, but I knew I could not do this alone. I stopped all my running and started lifting. Just the bar at first or very light dumbbells. Learning the techniques of resistance training and education around the long-term, negative effects of my restricted dieting assisted me to slowly change my thoughts on diet and exercise. One thing I did enjoy straight away was the feeling of my muscles working during specific exercises. I actually enjoyed the movement and not just exercising for the sake of burning calories and keeping the number on the scale low.

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Photo Credit: Eleni Psillakis, 2015 – Eleni Resistance Training in 2015

Resistance Training’s Positive Influence

Gradually I had a shift in my goal. If I wanted to lift more, I would have to eat more. Scary, but hospitalisation was more frightening. My eating gradually increased, and I found that my irrational fear that weight increase would all go around my waist was not true. My anxiety and fear of food and eating decreased. My skin and hair became healthier. There was an improvement in my mood and depression gradually lifted. This, in turn, had a positive effect on how I treated my body. When my body weight returned to a normal range for my height my period returned after being absent for 5 years. My goals shifted towards health and fitness and improved strength, increased bone density and wanting my hormone levels at a healthier level.

A study by Ahmed et al., found that after 12 weeks of a strength training program, 49 college aged women felt fitter, healthier and had a better attitude about their bodies. Plus, these women also had a higher level of self-acceptance1. Although this study did not mention these women had an eating disorder, the results reflect what I experienced. I do acknowledge that some people who take part in strength training may suffer from body image issues, eating disorders or disordered eating. They may have fears and anxiety around about missing a gym session, strict dieting and may even use multiple entries into bodybuilding competitions to mask a fear of gaining body fat or an eating disorder.

Eleni 2016 INBA City Nationals

Photo Credit: INBA, May 2016 – Eleni taking out 1st in the INBA City Nationals, after a 3-year break from competition.

Full Recovery is Body and Mind Based

I feel my full recovery came after having psychological treatment for severe clinical depression as my marriage broke down. The same feelings of low self-worth resurfaced and they were nothing to do with my body weight. Strength training helped again as I felt I had to focus on each rep and set and this gave my mind a break from very negative thoughts. I believe it also reduced the effect of the antidepressants I took as it stabilised my racing mind. I used antidepressants for 7-years and have been off them for 2-years now.

I will continually stress the importance of a multifaceted approach to eating disorder recovery including psychological treatment. There is still so much discussion to be had about eating disorders, and their association with body image issues. My belief is that eating disorders manifest as a need to deal with negative emotions and low self-worth. Lastly, you cannot expect to have a healthy body if your mind and thoughts about life are not healthy.

Reference:

  1. Ahmed, Christine, Hilton, Wanda and Pituch, Keenana (2002) Relations of Strength Training to Body Image Among a Sample of Female University Students: Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 16(4), P645–648, The National Strength & Conditioning Association, USA

About Our Eating Disorder News and Review Columnist – Eleni Psillakis

IMG_0727Combining over 27-years experience in the fitness industry, education and a lived experience of eating disorder, Eleni Psillakis is raising awareness of eating disorders as serious mental illnesses. In this time as a group fitness instructor, personal trainer, secondary and tertiary educator, she is aware of the fine-line crossed from healthy to unhealthy diet and exercise habits.

Using resistance training to gain weight to her 39kg frame at age 19, Eleni physically recovered and went on to compete in women’s bodybuilding. However the underlying emotional issues and thought patterns resurfaced 25-years later when her marriage broke down and she suffered clinical depression. Antidepressants and 8-years of psychological counselling assisted with the unlearning of negative thought processes that Eleni had of herself for most of her life. These were nothing to do with body image, but self-worth.

Resistance training again helped the process of stopping her thoughts racing during this time of depression and she stepped back onto the competition stage gaining a top 3 place in her division for each of the 5 competitions since. It was the psychological help that made the difference this time around.

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In 2016, Eleni received the ‘Inspiration Award’ at the prestigious FILEX health and fitness convention, an event that recognises excellence within the industry. Eleni won the award due to her commitment in promoting awareness of eating disorders and dedication to educating others in how to overcome feelings of self-loathing.

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An Insight to Anorexia and Other Eating Disorders for Fitness Professionals”, a seminar that Eleni has written, has been approved by Fitness Australia for continuing education.

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Disclaimer: The information published in this column are based on the author’s own professional and personal knowledge, and opinion. This information and opinion are not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment of any manner. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding any medical condition and consult a qualified medical professional before beginning any nutritional program or exercise program. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on InShape News.

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