The finding comes from patients at The Renfrew Center of Philadelphia, a residential treatment center for women with eating disorders. As part of the Renfrew program, patients making progress toward recovery are given the option of taking part in exercise classes.
The exercise program seems to help, Renfrew Center Foundation researchers Kelly N. Pedrotty and Rachel M. Calogero report. Their study is scheduled to appear in Eating Disorders: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention.
"This news may come as a shock to medical professionals who do not generally include exercise in the treatment for anorexia and bulimia," Calogero says in a news release.
People with eating disorders often abuse exercise. They tend to see it as a way to purge their bodies of calories, rather than as a healthy or enjoyable activity. An extreme and often harmful level of exercise is a common feature of eating disorders.
The Renfrew exercise program is designed to teach healthy exercise. It includes elements of yoga, Pilates, resistance training, sports conditioning, partner work, and group therapy. The program's three levels focus on sensing the self, supporting the self, and strengthening the self.
"The idea behind the program is to change the patient's attitudes about exercise," Pedrotty says in a news release. "For example, if a woman struggles with comparing herself to others during exercise, she is urged to focus on her breathing, pay attention to how her body feels, close her eyes, and experience the exercise for herself."
In the study of 254 Renfrew inpatients, anorexic women who chose to participate in the program gained 40% more weight than those who chose not to participate. Women with bulimia or with an unspecified eating disorder did not gain more weight after participation.
Women who took part in the program also reported feeling significantly less obliged to exercise than those who did not participate.