Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by an extreme preoccupation with losing so much weight that the patient can literally become skin and bones, so it only seems logical that if a teen girl embraces the idea of developing physical strength, she’d be immune to anorexia, correct?
To gain physical strength, you can’t lose muscle. There is no such thing as a gaunt-looking or “too thin” person who can move a lot of weight in the gym.
This is not to be confused with a physique athlete who has a tiny waist and is “shredded.”
These athletes eat well, have muscle development and are quite strong. You will not see someone who looks like an Olympic marathon runner bench press 200 pounds.
And you will not see a woman or teen with anorexia move much weight in the gym, either, because the muscle mass required isn’t there.
Conversely, teen girls and women who can lift impressive amounts of weight never appear to have anorexia, though they may be exceedingly lean — but they also have good muscle mass — not the bulky kind, but the fit and shapely kind.
Any teen girl or woman who’s serious about getting strong via strength training will tell you that they make a point of taking in adequate calories, and the last thing they want is to have a weak, frail looking body, such as one that results from anorexia.
Thus, it stands to reason that the desire to be strong and a passion for strength training would make it impossible to develop anorexia.
“I understand that there is some research showing that girls involved in sports tend to have less of a chance of developing eating disorders,” says Tammy Holcomb, MS, EdS, a licensed professional counselor who specializes in eating disorders.
“I can see where this would be the case in some situations, because it helps girls to start to see their body as useful vs. being so appearance oriented.”
That’s what strength training is all about: increasing the usefulness of your body, and the teen years are not too soon to start lifting weights, either. It’s perfectly safe for teen girls to work out with weights.
I myself began lifting when I was 15. Strength training will not stunt growth and is perfectly safe for teen girls.
Holcomb continues, “However, we also know that certain sports are highly associated with eating disorders. For example: gymnastics, ballet, cross country running.”
Strength training is not associated with a desire to look like a marathon runner, though many women strength train to lose excess body fat and appear lean.
Strength training enthusiasts are not as at risk for anorexia as are, say, ballet dancers and gymnasts.
In fact, anorexics who exercise typically spend significant amounts of time doing cardio and abdominal floor exercises. They rarely do resistance exercise because they fear it will bulk them up.
WILL strength training bulk up a teen girl? This is virtually impossible.
“Raising girls to see their body as strong and flexible is a good goal,” says Holcomb.
Because I have a passion for lifting heavy weights and love being strong, I just can’t help but wonder how powerful the effect of a power lifting program, or just basic strength training regimen, would have on teen girls, especially teen girls who are at risk for anorexia.
Think about it: A teen girl has learned to embrace the idea of making her muscles strong. Why on earth would she also want to see the scale drop below 85 pounds?
These two goals are simply incompatible and cannot coexist.
Nevertheless, Holcomb explains, “We always need to keep in mind that genetics, personality, and family factors are strong indicators for a girl’s vulnerability to an eating disorder.
“So, getting a girl involved in sports may be helpful, but may not be enough to prevent an eating disorder if other factors are at play.”