3 Ways Strength Training Can Counter Depression & Stop Binge Eating For Good

Christmas is always the worst time of year for me. 2011 was a particularly bad one. Shivering in the cold of my childhood bedroom, I sat - hands clasped around knees - thinking about how best to kill myself.

Hopelessness only scratches the surface of the description – that same feeling I’d had on-and-off for ten years. I was 23. Half my life had been spent in darkness.

I went over the mathematics:

Agonising-Existence
Agonising-Existence

It was a hell for one.

I was finally ready to admit I needed help. So as I sat there, in that disgusting bedroom, I vowed to put an end to my suffering. I told myself “I’m going to give this one final push. I’ll put all of my energy into stopping this continual depression, and these cycles of binge eating and starving myself. If it still doesn’t work, I’ll just kill myself.”

 It really was that simple.

to do

It might have been “simple”, but it seemed impossible.

I could talk for hours about how I did it: how I actually did turn my life around, the exact steps I took, the process and emotions I went through, but I know you don’t have all day. So here’s 3 reasons why strength training helped me to get out of depression and stop binge eating for good.

Like The Sun: Show Up Every Day

I decided to put my efforts into showing up. I made sure – no matter what – that I trained consistently. That means I’d go to the gym whether I had binged, felt unbearably unhappy, or otherwise.

It means, like the sun, I’d show up every day, even if clouds or stormy feelings tried to obscure me.

One of the main problems with binge eating is feeling out of control. It’s like you don’t have a choice — you feel compelled to eat. By consistently training in the gym, I began to see that I did have a choice over my thoughts.

Because even if you have a million things swirling through your head — and all you want to do is crawl under a duvet and hide from the world — by showing up and choosing to stay in the gym, despite what you may be feeling, you begin to see that you can choose to act in the way you actually want to, no matter what your current thoughts are telling you.

barbell

Sometimes even getting out of bed felt too hard, but I’d show up anyway.

Similarly, you may not feel in control when that voice in your head is telling you to EAT EAT EAT, but unless someone is tying you down and force-feeding you, you actually do have the choice. It might not be an easy one. It may be damn uncomfortable. But learning to act in a way that aligns with your values (for example, always going to the gym, even if you don’t feel like it) will go some way into letting you see that feeling powerless is not the same as being powerless.

The gym became a place of refuge for me. It was a safe place where I wouldn’t — and couldn’t — binge. Instead, I was working on becoming a better version of myself.

I was building healthy habits, structure and routine that would help me. I was learning to trust myself again.

I celebrated turning up. Even when everything else went to shit, I gave myself credit for turning up and doing something that I knew was making me stronger.

This is an important step that is often overlooked. The more positive emotions you experience towards your efforts and successes, the more encouraged you’ll feel to continue building on those initial wins. This is the quickest route to self-belief, confidence, and ending binge eating.

It doesn’t have to be much, just pump your fists in the air, but no matter how small, make sure you celebrate every win.

Action step: Realize that you’re in control. Begin to notice that when you have the thought “I want to binge”, you don’t actually have to act on it, because feeling powerless is not the same as being powerless. Celebrate every win, no matter how small.

Shift Your Self-Worth By Focusing on Performance

When, like me, you grow up believing you’re not enough, you spend every day focused on trying to be better. On trying to prove you’re not a weak, worthless piece of shit.

This is how I started training bodyweight HIIT excessively, and starving myself so I’d become thin. I had a laser-like focus on my weight. Every second, I was holding in my stomach, always self-conscious that someone might think I was fat. I’d weigh myself multiple times a day, check my stomach in the mirror every time I went to the bathroom. I called myself fat at every opportunity, but in reality, I was a skeleton.

When my obsessive exercising and restrictive eating turned into binge eating, I didn’t know what to do. All of my self-worth was in being lean. I was so ashamed of myself for binge eating.

When I joined a gym, I met a group of massive, powerlifting guys. They accepted me. They didn’t seem to care what I looked like, but just encouraged me to get stronger. I hadn’t accepted myself yet, but by training with them, I started focusing on the weight on the bar going up, rather than my bodyweight going down.

Focusing on performance, rather than how lean I was, allowed me to step off the scale. It allowed me to stop putting so much of my worth on my weight. It built up my mental resilience, because even if I couldn’t lift the weight I wanted to today, I knew I had the opportunity to try again tomorrow.

This helped me see that even if I couldn’t avoid a binge today, I knew I had the opportunity to try again tomorrow.

I also noticed that my performance in the gym was related to my nutrition, so this helped me get on track too, but my entire mentality had changed:

performance increase
performance increase

Boom: mindset switch.

Talking to people also goes a long way in getting rid of the shame and isolation associated to binge eating. Once you reach out to people, you’d be surprised how many of them go through this. And if you don’t have anyone to talk to, you can always talk to me.

Action step: Track your performance, not your bodyweight. Talk to someone you trust.

Reattach Your Head To Your Body

Up until I was 23, I didn’t even know I had a body.

I will never forget this: one day, I was walking up a hill to work, and suddenly I just felt terrible. Then I was frustrated that I’d been feeling OK, and suddenly everything had become unbearable.

I had just learnt about mindfulness, so I did a quick scan down my body, mentally feeling each body part in turn. You know what I discovered? I was just really hot from walking up the hill.

I took my coat off and felt instantly better.

That moment was huge for me. I realized I’d spent my whole life trapped in the thoughts in my head, that I didn’t even realize I had a body — that it, too, has needs — and that I need to listen.

For people who are binge eating, there is often a disconnect between their minds and their bodies. Even if you’ve exercised your whole life, there’s a difference between hammering yourself for the sake of being lean, versus moving your body because it’s a joy and a privilege. One is numbing — running away from your emotions — the other is focused on the present moment.

Lifting heavy weights forced me to be in the present moment. I couldn’t worry about much else while my own bodyweight was sitting on my back. Instead, I focused on my form. I learnt how important breathing was, I counted my reps.

Neuroscience research shows that mindfulness increases activation of the medial prefrontal cortex, and decreases activation of structures like the amygdala that trigger our emotions responses[1]. This means that mindfulness increases our control over the emotional brain.

So not only is exercise stress-relief from difficult emotions, and a specific time to get out of your head, but it goes further than that. Focusing on your body, your breathing, and counting the reps — that’s all a form of mindfulness and meditation.

So not only was I training my physical strength by getting in the reps, I was also learning how to control my response to difficult emotions, rep after rep.

Overhead Press
Overhead Press

Lifting heavy things forces you to be in the present moment.

Later, I learnt more advanced techniques like visualization, and experiencing what athletes and other high performers call Flow. Not only did I visualize my lifts (which helped my performance — in fact all athletes use visualization in some form for precisely this reason), I started to visualize coming home and not binge eating. I started to visualize how great it would be to not have yet another night of severe stomach pain. I started to visualize what I would do instead. Then when I got home, I had already lived the success in my mind, which made it easier to actually go ahead and do it.

Action step: Get in the present moment. Focus on the movements of your body. Visualize success. Not only will this help you with binge eating, it will also help your performance in the gym.

Training wasn’t the only thing I did to overcome binge eating and depression. I read a lot of self-help books, I talked to a lot of different people, I started meditation and eating mindfully. I created art. But by concentrating on the weight on the bar going up, rather than my body weight going down, I no longer attached my self-worth to the scale. I began to heal emotionally. I transformed my life. And now it’s my mission to help other people do the same.

To Sum It Up:

  • By recognizing that your thoughts are just thoughts — that they don’t define you — frees you so that you can choose how to act. Make sure to celebrate those small wins.
  • Focus on performance instead of fat loss can give you that mindset shift to move your self-worth away from the scale. Reaching out to others can help too.
  • Movement can be a form of meditation — to learn to have better control over your emotions, and get in the present moment. Visualizing success beforehand makes it easier to live it out in the real world.

[1] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053811916002469


Agonising-Existence © Maria Marklove

to do © Maria Marklove

barbell © Maria Marklove

performance increase © Maria Marklove

Overhead Press © CrossFit Games

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About The Author

With nearly a decade of strength training and nutrition experience, Maria Marklove helps people who train to stop binge eating and emotional overeating for good.

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