Can Yoga Help Treat Eating Disorders?

Outside Yoga Class (River Centre Clinic)

Can Yoga Help Treat Eating Disorders?

Are there links between body image, physical activity and eating disorders? Stories and research from decades ago have shown that competitive sports can encourage the development of eating disorders. In the 1990’s, Sports Illustrated articles openly discussed the deadly impact of anorexia on women athletes. Yet, roughly twenty years later, this problem still exists in U.S. culture. Today the National Eating Disorder Association reports that over one-third of Division 1 NCAA athletes have symptoms that place them at risk for anorexia. Most people think that only female athletes are at risk for an eating disorder, however, male athletes are also at risk—especially those participating in sports where diet, appearance, size, and weight are of importance such as wrestling, bodybuilding, crew, and running.

How can yoga help with eating disorders?

Newer research is studying whether certain physical activities such as yoga, provide effective treatment for eating disorder related illnesses. Yoga, originally a Hindu spiritual and ascetic discipline from India, as an activity is increasingly popular around the world. Yoga is popular in the United States as a hobby that promotes health and relaxation. The activity incorporates movement, body postures, breath control as well as meditation. The popularity of yoga has raised questions as to whether different styles of yoga can provide complementary therapy for patients who are receiving treatment for eating disorders.

A randomized controlled clinical trial study in 2009 attempted to discover what effects individualized yoga practice had on adolescent patients. These individuals were receiving outpatient treatment for diagnosed eating disorders (anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or eating disorder not otherwise specified). In this randomized study, out of 50 girls and 4 boys, the group that was participating in yoga experienced a greater decrease in eating disorders. The participates who were receiving non-yoga activities showed some initial decline, but then returned to baseline levels after 12 weeks. In this study, the yoga treatment did not have a negative effect on BMI, but the overall therapeutic approach was seen as holding promise as an adjunctive therapy to standard care.

More recent research also asked the question as to whether the practice of yoga provided positive results in an outpatient setting. Specifically, in treating anxiety, depression and body image disturbances among adolescents with eating disorders. In this study, researchers concluded that outpatients eating disorder therapies combined with yoga practice showed decrease levels of anxiety, depression, and body image disturbances. Like the earlier 2009 study, the practice of yoga was seen as a beneficial treatment strategy when blended with multidisciplinary care. However, researchers did add that further study was needed on treatments approaches that presented yoga as a standard element of outpatient eating disorder therapy.

Research continues around the application of yoga as a treatment strategy.  A small randomized control trial investigated the impact of an 11- week yoga program for women who were diagnosed with bulimia nervosa or other not specified eating disorders. Interestingly, this small study found that the women experienced benefits from yoga for months after the original research.

What are the benefits of yoga?

There are numerous benefits of yoga, such as improvements in self-esteem, body image, and mood, and a decrease in anxiety. It is important to pause and recognize that you are enough. Yoga provides a way for individuals to deregulate a heightened nervous system, deep breathing to help calm spinning thinking, and to be more present. Yoga philosophies such as non-harming, non-judgment, compassion, contentment, and acceptance can help with thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors that lead to a destructive mindset.

For additional questions about the use of yoga practice to supplement the treatment of eating disorders, please contact the staff at River Centre Clinic. Our mission is to provide specialized and treatment for individuals suffering from eating disorders (anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder, and other eating disorders). We follow a well-established therapy model for treating eating disorders that integrates individual, group, and family therapy.

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Yoga, Eating Disorders

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