How well can strength training prevent a teen girl from developing an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa?

The beauty about strength training and working on getting a STRONG body is that this discipline does not emphasize a thin body or that of losing body fat, such as the pursuits of ballet, gymnastics, distance running, dancing and figure skating.

Nobody tells a teen girl with a barbell in her hands, “You need to lose weight in your thighs if you want to do better at lifting.”

Having a strong body and being dangerously underweight do not occur in the same body.

A teen girl — even an adolescent — is NOT too young to start a strength training regimen.

Typical gyms allow kids unsupervised use of strength training equipment at the minimum age of 13.

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.

Thus, it stands to reason that the desire to be strong and a passion for strength training would make it difficult to develop anorexia.

Sports that Emphasize Strength, not Light Bodies

“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.

It’s perfectly safe for teen and tween girls to work out with weights. Records do not need to be broken.

As long as they use safe form, training with weights is actually tons safer than riding a bike, cheerleading, gymnastics, soccer and basketball — as far as number of ER visits due to injuries.

I myself began lifting when I was 15. Strength training will not stunt growth. Your daughter’s final height will come from her parents.

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.

What about women with starvation eating disorders who strength train at the gym?

Yes, you will see them on occasion if you go to a gym often enough.

However, I’ve noticed — after 30+ years of working out at gyms — that women with apparent anorexia nervosa exercise in a peculiar way at gyms.

Typically, they spend a lot of time on the floor doing ab routines. They usually spend a good amount of time on cardio equipment.

And when it comes to weight training, they do very high repetitions with very low resistance, and often spend overly lengthy times doing the same resistance exercise.

This type of training suggests a compulsive approach to keep the body weight way down, rather than an efficient approach to add healthy lean muscle.

Working out at a gym to gain strength will NOT encourage a starvation diet.

Will lifting weights bulk up a growing body?

After all, many teen boys train with weights to pack on muscle.

Piling on muscle does not occur by accident. Ask any teen boy or man whose goal is to bulk up. It requires high dedication and commitment.

But training for fitness and strength only, requires a different type of regimen that is physiologically impossible to bulk up muscles.

Shutterstock/Monkey Business Images

“Raising girls to see their body as strong and flexible is a good goal,” says Holcomb.

If 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 100 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.”

Tammy Holcomb founded the Atlanta Eating Disorder Coalition in 2003 and runs a weekly women’s sexual trauma therapy group. She is the former executive director of Carolina House eating disorder programs in NC.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.