Exercise for Weight Gain/ Eating Disorder Recovery

When it comes to exercise programmes, we often think of losing weight as one of the key motivations. Whilst it’s true that weight loss is one of the most common reasons for wanting to make lifestyle changes (dietary, exercise etc), it’s not the only one. This blog covers exercise for weight gain and follows on from the previous 2 blogs on eating disorders. There are many reasons why people may want to gain weight, but exercise shouldn’t be demonised as always contributing to weight loss. Below are some top tips on making sure exercise supports weight gain if that’s a personal goal, whilst enjoying all of the other physical and mental benefits that are so important.

Consider the FITT principles – The FITT principles are key factors when designing any exercise programme and are namely – Frequency, Intensity, Time and Type. Obviously, these will vary depending on an individual’s goals and for weight gain they will look different to weight loss. For someone wanting to gain weight – exercise frequency, intensity and time (duration) may be lower than an average exercise programme as it’ll be important to limit calorie burn. Calories in vs calories out is discussed in more detail below but this is a huge part of weight gain (and loss, ironically!) Especially in recovery from eating disorders or where weight loss has resulted from over-exercising, it may be necessary to have an ’accountability partner’/ workout buddy/ coach or personal trainer to help impose exercise limits as an individual’s natural tendency may be to push themselves to their physical and mental limits. If somebody is used to over-exercising it will take time to adjust to a less intense regime and see it as a ’new normal’ as opposed to feeling lazy/ like you’re ‘not doing enough’. There will likely be a physical and mental reaction of agitation and anxiety to not exercising to previous extremes. The type of exercise which may be useful is detailed below.

Exercise for weight gain may involve reducing the intensity, duration and frequency of workouts

Limit cardio/ try other types of exercise – During an exercise session of any set duration, cardiovascular exercise (running, cycling, skipping etc.) will burn more calories than a resistance-based session. In addition to this, if somebody has been severely underweight for a period of time then the heart will have been put under additional stress. We want to avoid any more of that for now and cardiovascular exercise can contribute to it if heart rate isn’t closely monitored. Lower intensity exercise will keep the heart rate lower and also the type of exercise should be considered here. Weights-based training can be highly beneficial to help increase muscle mass as many people automatically presume weight gain = fat gain = ‘bad.’ Again, this is especially true where eating disorders and over-exercising or over-adherence to a ‘healthy lifestyle’ may be the cause of weight loss. For many people experiencing these conditions, it may still feel important to ensure weight gain includes increases in strength and muscle mass and not just solely from increasing body fat mass.

Other great options of exercise type for weight gain include yoga, pilates, tai chi and any other flexibility/mobility focused work. Again, these tend to be lower intensity and so burn fewer calories per session than heavy cardiovascular work. They can help to improve the condition of muscles and joints if physical activity levels have been limited previously in the weight gain journey. Last but not least, they are commonly known to induce calm and relaxation in the body and mind and so can bring additional benefits for coping with weight gain.

Flexibility and mobility work can help the mind and body

Trust your appetite – When someone increases the frequency, intensity and duration of exercise, they may well find that their appetite increases. This can also be the case with changes to exercise type for example lifting weights often naturally stimulates a demand for more food. For someone in recovery from an eating disorder who’s likely to have had their exercise levels severely limited as part of treatment, it can be scary to find that starting to incorporate exercise makes you want to eat more. It is, however, of paramount importance to ensure calorie intake increases as of course, exercise will increase calorie output. Eating higher calorie foods can help to make this feel more manageable as being faced with large volumes of food can feel unbearable. Of course pastries, cakes, desserts, chocolate, takeaways etc. can be more freely incorporated into a weight gain plan than one for weight loss, however some people may still struggle to include these foods. Things like nuts, peanut butter, oils, full fat dairy products and protein powders maybe more desirable choices for the health conscious. A key tip here is to make sure you’re increasing calories from macronutrient groups (fat, carbohydrate and protein) and not just from less nutritious foods that tends to be higher in sugar, salt and unhealthy fats. I personally found that exercising helped me to eat more as I was wanting to perform well and have energy for my sessions and food was the most important fuel for that. It helped me to shift my goals from weight loss numbers to performance statistics!

Gaining weight and increasing calorie intake doesn’t have to mean filling up on ‘junk food’

Focus on what else you gain – For somebody on a weight gain journey, it can often feel difficult as we are generally going against what society leads us to believe is desirable. It can help to focus on the positives of weight gain which can include increased body confidence, increases in strength, a more stable and positive mood and more freedom to enjoy social activities that involve food and drink. If somebody has been over-exercising, they will also gain some free time from cutting down. It can be helpful to schedule something to fill this time to avoid the temptation of exercising more than is desirable. Make plans with friends or family, start a new book or TV series, sign up to a group or club or consider taking up a new hobby you’ve always wanted to try. The possibilities are endless but make sure you appreciate the free time to help create a more balanced and well-rounded lifestyle.

The benefits of exercise when it comes to eating disorder recovery are numerous. From helping to ease depression and anxiety to learning to focus on goals other than a number on a scale and calorie counting. Exercise can help to improve body confidence and bring a huge sense of achievement and satisfaction too and promote a ‘strong not skinny’ mindset. By considering the points above, it is absolutely possible to incorporate exercise into a holistic and long-term weight gain plan.

If you think you or somebody you know maybe struggling with an eating disorder or exercise addiction it is essential to seek qualified medical support. For help with exercise programming for weight gain, personal trainers will be able to support with this. Mike at Hamers360 fitness has experience in working with clients in recovery from eating disorders and so feel free to contact him with any questions or for support. You can also contact myself on Instagram (details below).

Bev Meakin – Personal Trainer/ Exercise Referral Officer and Complementary Therapist.

Instagram @bevs_life