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Yoga may soothe eating-related anxiety

Updated: Nov 12, 2019

Some very exciting work has been going on at the intersection of eating disorder and yoga research. In 2016, I worked with Dr. Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, the chair of the department of Epidemiology and Community Health, in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota, to implement a trial testing the effects of yoga on treatment of eating disorders in a residential, 24 hour care facility. Dr. Neumark-Sztainer is a world-renowned expert in obesity and eating disorders and author of several books including "I'm like so FAT" and hundreds of peer-reviewed articles. She is best known for her longitudinal cohort study, Project (EAT) Eating and Activity in Teens.

The idea for our yoga study originally came from the Director of Yoga and Nutrition at The Emily Program in St. Paul, Minnesota, Ms. Lisa Diers. She worked for eight years as a clinical dietitian, helping clients with eating disorders heal, and observed that on days when clients had yoga, even the most difficult meals (e.g. pizza) seemed to be more tolerable for them. This observation, when presented to Dianne Neumark-Sztainer and I, evolved into a study. We recruited and randomized 38 individuals to either have yoga or not have yoga before dinner five days a week. The yoga sequence was carefully designed to target anxiety encountered by many clients (for example, emphasizing standing vs. seated opening sequences), and to avoid poses known to exacerbate body image issues. We found that negative mood, one of the key precipitators of eating disorder behaviors, was significantly lowered in the yoga group compared to the group who did not receive yoga. If yoga plays a role in eating disorder treatment (which data corroborate), there will be evidence to encourage insurance companies to support yoga as a mind-body healing practice.

This study, however, is just the start to an exciting line of research currently being conducted by my team at the University of Delaware. We intend to take our research out of the clinical realm and into the community, looking at yoga's role in broader eating and weight constructs. For example, we want to see how individuals in the broader community might respond to body-positive yoga. College students (especially females) are at risk for both disordered eating and weight gain, leading to two of the most serious public health threats we face - eating disorders and obesity. Our new study will take place this Spring - a test of yoga's effects on body satisfaction in college-aged females. We will also be evaluating weight change during the trial and eating disorder symptoms (things like overly restrictive dieting and/or binge eating). We intend to include 50 female students at a large university, half of whom will participate in yoga three times per week for 10 weeks. The yoga intervention will be carried out by trained, certified yoga instructors. I'm very excited for Ms. Diers, who designed the body-positive yoga sequence, to visit at the end of January and provide the intensive training.

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