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Ashley Solomon, Psy.D is a psychologist who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders, body image, trauma, and serious mental illness.

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Tag: exercise

17 Mar

So here’s what concerns me about CrossFit

Ideas to Consider 10 Comments by Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul


{image credit :: KaneStr}

When a good friend of mine told me several years ago that she had decided to join her husband at the “box” for a CrossFit session, I was admittedly incredulous. A swimmer in her youth and moderately athletic, it wasn’t that I didn’t think she had the guts to do an intensive workout. But CrossFit? Wasn’t that the place where runners go to die and Navy troops end up disabled?

It was, but she loved it. And she realized it wasn’t about weight loss, but getting stronger. Soon, she was going to the box several times per week, crafting her schedule around the class times and speaking the lingo like a veteran. She humble-bragged about the WOD (“Workout of the Day,” which CrossFitters can find online), which might be a six-minute AMRAP (“As Many Reps As Possible”) of pull-ups, push-ups, and squats.

As I learned more about the world of CrossFit, I was reassured in my belief that it was not a world for me. I’ll admit, I was scared of the intensity of the workouts. But I also found myself anxious about the community itself. As someone relatively averse to competition, it seemed to me that the CrossFit culture would emphasize the very part of exercise that I most disliked.

While I openly admit that I’ve thus never tried CrossFit myself and am likewise no expert on the practice itself, as an observer, a therapist, a friend, and an eating disorder psychologist, I have a few concerns.

A few caveats before I “bash” something I’ve never tried: I fully recognize that each box (“gym” for CrossFitters) has its own individual style and culture as established by the franchise owners, the staff, and the people attending classes. I’m going to be painting CrossFit with a bit of a broad stroke, so I acknowledge the limitations of doing so.

Okay. So here’s the thing –

CrossFit can seem a bit cult-like to me at times. Now, I acknowledge that any time a group of people spends a large amount of time together doing something they truly love and value, a subculture develops. What gives me the heebie jeebies about the whole thing though is the mentality I’ve observed among many CrossFitters that CrossFit is superior to all else and that other ways of exercising are for the a.) uninformed or b.) weak. Another friend of mine who dipped her foot into the CrossFit craze pulled it back out again when she was told that she was “stupid” for running. While the principles of CrossFit may be different and – who knows – maybe running is silly – I don’t respond well to things that seem to put other things down to advance their own agenda.

For some, the culture of CrossFit is the perfect breeding ground for their own insecurities and harmful beliefs that we must push ourselves to our absolute limits. While this may never be something that a CrossFit instructor says explicitly, my observations have been that this is interwoven into the fabric of Crossift. If we’re not pushing ourselves, what’s the point?

Unfortunately, a growing number of individuals have seen just where this mentality can lead – potentially fatal health complications resulting from over-exertion. The issue that has gotten the most publicity is an ugly little condition called rhabdomyolysis. “Rhabdo” for short, this is a life-threatening issue that can develop when the muscle cells break down from over-use, spilling myoglobin, a protein that can easily overwhelm the kidneys, leading to significant illness, kidney failure, or death.  And it’s not just a condition that affects the unfit. Military and police personnel and football players doing CrossFit are among those reporting Rhabdo.

Sure, any workout is going to pose potential risks. Cycling can lead to getting hit by cars or other serious injuries, for example. What concerns me though is the attitude with which CrossFit and its leadership have approach rhabdomyolysis. You might imagine they would disseminate information and put safeguards in place, but instead they simply created a cartoon named “Uncle Rhabdo,” a jacked-up clown with blood and sweat spilling out and hooked up to a dialysis machine.  The response to a 2005 lawsuit in which a CrossFitter claimed that he was permanently disabled due to Rhabdo caused by his workouts? A children’s workout was named after him, the obvious implication that this gentleman was clearly weak.

The dangerousness of the practice wasn’t downplayed. Rather, it seems to have been used to inspire its followers and create a culture in which “only the strong survive.” CrossFit’s founder, Greg Glassman, was quoted in the New York Times saying, “It can kill you… I’ve always been completely honest about that.”

Um… okay.

Do I feel that CrossFit itself is responsible for its members who end up hurt, either psychologically or physically? I suppose that depends on how we define responsible. What I will say is that a culture has developed in many CrossFit communities in which limits are not observed, pain is lauded, and danger is ignored. For someone vulnerable to over-exercise or extreme behaviors, CrossFit could create the perfect environment for dangerous behavior to thrive.

Have you ever tried CrossFit? What has been your experience? What kinds of physical activity do you enjoy? 

23 Jun

The Punishment Paradox

Education 3 Comments by Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul

For individuals struggling and the people who care for them alike, one of the most challenging aspects of anorexia is this baffling question: How can someone seemingly choose to engage in something so painful (i.e. starvation) over time? 

It’s a loaded question, for sure. First, there’s the issue of “choice” and what that even really means. Is someone choosing to starve if they have a disease that makes it difficult for them not to do so? To flesh out that question is a blog post for another day (and, not to mention, a lifetime of study), but the idea of the “punishment paradox” is an important piece of the puzzle.

This idea of the “punishment paradox” is explored by Carrie Arnold, freelance science writer and eating disorder expert, in her  recent book, Decoding Anorexia. Arnold did some exhaustive research for her book, talking to experts and drawing upon her own experiences. One of the experts she consulted was Charlotte Keating, a researcher in Australia who offered insights into the neurobiology of excessive exercise (a great example of something painful that can seem rewarding).

In Arnold’s book, Keating explains that for people with anorexia, there might be an interesting phenomenon occurring called “reward contamination.” What happens, according to the theory, is that the neurons that are part of telling us what is rewarding and punishing get mixed up in the brain. So for these individuals, what the others might perceive as torturous, they perceive as actually reinforcing. Kind of how watching ten hours of football on a Sunday is my idea of a nightmare, but my husband’s heaven? Or something like that…

Arnold identifies a particularly interesting study that illuminates this concept. In the study, a group of women who had recovered from restricting anorexia and a group of other women performed a gambling task inside a machine that allowed researchers to watch their brain functioning. The result was that winning and losing appeared the same in the brains of women with previous anorexia. The study thus suggested that for people with this eating disorder, it may be challenging to tease apart what feels good from what doesn’t. So skipping lunch may leave one person feeling grouchy and miserable, while it leaves someone else with a feeling of pleasure.

The implications of this line of research are far-reaching when it comes to understanding eating disorders, and I don’t think we’ve fully grasped them all yet. One thing we can deduce, though, is that if someone’s brain is telling them that starving equals reward, it’s going to be tough to stop. It sheds a bit of light onto why the idea of “just eat the cheeseburger!” is not particularly helpful.

That doesn’t mean that restoring health is impossible. Far from it, in fact. Eliciting the support of trusted others — personal and professional — who can say, Hey, I know that this is tough, but this is really hurting you, is an important first step.



04 Mar

How I Stopped Hating Exercise

Exercise 16 Comments by Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul


{image via pinterest}

Growing up, my greatest athletic accomplishment was managing to not get injured by any of the basketballs that flew off the court and towards the bench – the one I was dutifully warming. I was the kid who begged my mom to let me bring Virginia Woolf to the volleyball game that I was supposed to be playing. The kid who would rather be tortured slowly by geometry than run a mile.

I was not an athlete, to say the least.

I remember when I told my family I was running my first half marathon. Running? They looked skeptical. From what? 

Just because I enjoy it.

Enjoy it? Is something wrong? Then came the hand on my forehead, the head shakes, and the worried looks. Honey, I think you might be ill. 

Amazingly enough, I had come to love exercise. Today, I treasure the moments I can get outside and feel the cool breeze on my cheeks on a run. My body feels alive and invigorated when I stretch my arms out long to swim. I feel centered and calm when I hold my body in a yoga pose. Movement awakens my spirit.

But like I said, it wasn’t always this way. And I want to share with you just how I stopped hating exercise.

1. I ignored those that linked exercise and weight loss. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – there’s minimal evidence that exercise actually leads to weight loss. While this news comes as a major disappointment to those that slave away on the treadmill in hopes of a smaller figure, it’s actually really freeing news. It means you can step off that monotonous treadmill and start doing something you actually have a chance of enjoying.

2. I stopped doing it mindlessly. When exercise is associated with struggle and pain, of course we want to disconnect from the experience. Who wants to hurt? Like most people, I was initially addicted to Bravo and my iPod during exercise and couldn’t fathom doing without distraction. It was only once I gave mindful exercise a chance that I realized just how… dare I say it? … good movement could feel.

3. I started practicing yoga. Some of you might remember when I took my first real yoga class (Spoiler: It was unpleasant!). Since then, however, I’ve become a total convert. Yoga (and other eastern pratices like Tai Chi) has a way of transforming the way that you view your body and your experience in it. You won’t look at movement the same way again.

4. I ditched competition – with others or myself. Humans, particular ones in western society, tend to run on the obsessed side when it comes to competition. From road races to CrossFit competitions to pie eating contests, we can’t seem to get enough of beating the heck out of each other. For me, competition takes the focus off of myself and my own experience and moves it outside – something that diminishes the experience for me. When I start to worry about being faster or stronger than someone else, I immediately enjoy what I’m doing less.

5. I stopped the same thing all the darn time. It’s easy to fall into a rut when movement means doing the same activity again and again. I couldn’t get myself out of bed if it meant running for the fifth day in a row. But when I have some variety to look forward to, I anticipate my exercise time with excitement.

6. I started savoring the time alone. I spend a lot of time talking with people. It’s sort of part of the job. So I like being alone and quiet while exercising. It’s one way that I can decompress and look inward. I especially love the early mornings.

Do you enjoy exercise? Have you always? What’s your favorite part? 

02 Aug

A Binge: The Morning After

Ideas to Consider 5 Comments by Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul

morning self

{image credit :: kygp}


Your eyelids reluctantly lift from their resting place as the harsh light washes over you, signaling it’s time to rise from this intoxicating slumber. You’d like to pull the warm comforter back over your head and disappear into the abyss of ignorance – the place where you can forget the shame of last night.

But your body won’t let you forget. You feel the distinctively sharp pains deep in your belly; you still feel the food sitting high and heavy. Your mind spins in circles, looping in and out of the names that last night held such beauty and power, but now elicit a feeling of disappointment. Oreo and Oscar Meyer and Special K and Hostess. Those bastards – letting you down once again.

You promised yourself this wouldn’t happen again, you wouldn’t let food leave you feeling bent and broken in the morning. But here you are – alone, frightened of the voraciousness of your hunger, and desperate to get out of this cycle.

Handling the day after a binge episode is most certainly not for the faint of heart; it is one of the most difficult challenges that we face in overcoming emotional overeating and binge eating. When all we want to do is hide under the covers is the precise moment at which what we need to do is call on all of our reserves and prepare for battle. We are no longer just fighting against the temptations of trigger foods, but also against the insidious voices that try to undermine our recovery.

When you’ve just binged and come out on the other side, try these tips to bounce back:

1. Journal. And then journal again. Try to think of a binge episode as an opportunity to discover something totally new and interesting about yourself. No matter the circumstances and how familiar they might be, each binge is different and has its own identifiable triggers – environmental and emotional. Journaling is a fantastic way of analyzing the thoughts and feelings you were having prior to, during, and after the binge. If you’re getting stuck in the embarrassment or frustration you’re feeling now and can’t even remember what was going on before eating, then just explore those feelings. Your truth lies within the words – or images – that you can get on paper. There’s no wrong or write (pun intended!) way – just let it flow.

2. Eat protein. Not just protein of course, but make sure you incorporate protein rich foods into your diet after a binge. Many of those who binge tend to do so on high carbohydrate foods, and there’s a scientific and perfectly comprehensible reason for this. Carb-rich foods help the amino acid tryptophan to produce serotonin – the “feel-good chemical” in our brains. When we binge and eat lots of carbs, we increase our serotonin levels and voilà! – we feel good. But as you might expect, as our blood sugar and serotonin levels even out or drop, we can feel sluggish, irritable, and depressed. Eating protein-rich food ensures we’re getting enough tryptophan and keep our mood in check.

3. Start using those affirmations you’ve been collecting. You’ve heard them before. Maybe you’ve even written them in your journal, put them on your vision board, or recite them in the shower. Well, now is the time to pull out all the self-love wisdom you can muster and pour it on yourself. Some of my favorites: A lapse is not a relapse. I treat myself with kindness and patience. I forgive myself and others, release the past and move forward with love in my heart. Every day is a chance to recreate my life. What are some of your favorites?

4. Exercise. Gently! Exercise should not be used as a punishment – ever! Don’t plan on setting any marathon PRs today or burn XXX calories in hot yoga. Instead, focus on doing something that makes your body feeling utterly amazing and do it mindfully. This means keeping present with the way that your body moves and feels, even as you take a gentle walk or stretch out your limbs. Shifting your perspective from seeing your body as your enemy to seeing it as your ally will help prevent treating it with disrespect in the future.

The moral of the story is to be kind and patient with yourself. Tearing yourself down or throwing your eating schedule off even further with restriction or more binging will just make it more difficult to develop the healthy relationship with food and yourself that you want. Try something new this morning and start with self-love. And some protein.




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