Don’t Call it Gym Class: Recreational Therapy for Eating Disorders

Recreational therapy group with yoga mats

Mindful movement for the joy of it!


Recreational therapy, also known as therapeutic recreation, is essential to the comprehensive treatment of those with eating disorders at Sanford Behavioral Health. People seeking treatment may feel lost and disconnected from their identity, values, bodies, and leisure interests because of their eating disorder(s). This is where the recreational therapist steps in as part of the multidisciplinary team.


Recreational Therapy for Eating Disorders

The recreational therapy team at Sanford Comprehensive Treatment for Eating Disorders (Sanford CTED) serves clients across the continuum of care. In that regard, the team completes a comprehensive assessment of each client’s individualized leisure interests, needs, and goals to support their psychological well-being and recovery. Further, the individualized assessment allows us to treat the person as a whole, deepening the therapeutic benefit for their specific needs. This is achieved through various interventions and groups, including recreational therapy groups, experiential excursions, meal support, and one-on-one sessions.


Therapy Groups

Recreational therapy groups may include mindful movement, creative expression, cooking skills, leisure education, psychoeducational material, mindfulness, and other skills-based activities. At Sanford CTED, we utilize walks outside, gentle yoga, stretching, and breathing techniques. Because our client’s body sizes are changing during treatment, we stress movement for joyfulness, not to push the body. Mindful movement like yoga is ideal for those who may have used exercise for compensatory purposes.


Experiential Excursions

Sanford’s signature experiential excursions allow clients to practice various skills in challenging environments with the support of the recreational therapist. For example, ordering and eating food in a restaurant, shopping for clothes, engaging in new leisure experiences, connecting with nature, and building social skills. The lack of control over watching someone prepare food in a fast-food restaurant or touching game controllers in an arcade can be triggering. But these exposures to “real-life” situations are processed in the safety of treatment and essential as preparation for long-term recovery.


clinical kitchen


Meal Support

At Sanford CTED, a member of the recreational therapy team sits with our clients during meals and snacks. The purpose is to guide clients and help them identify emotions as they surface. Eating a meal can be stressful for individuals in our care. Because of this, we practice deep breathing, play games, and talk about anything but food. We practice mindfulness, socializing during meals, and acceptance.


One-on-One Therapy Sessions

Clients work on an aftercare or relapse prevention plan with their clinical therapist. They may also want to implement a leisure plan. In that regard, we encourage them to join clubs, volunteer and socialize in recovery. There are also one-on-one opportunities after an excursion. For example, we may go to a busy store and try on clothes in a fitting room. Afterward, an individual session can help to process feelings about clothing size changes due to weight restoration.



The Benefits of Joy, Food, and Leisure

These groups allow the clients to explore old and sometimes undiscovered parts of themselves in a therapeutic setting to bring meaning and value back into their lives. Other benefits of these groups include experiencing the joyful movement of the body, appreciating the social aspects of cooking food with others, and finding a sense of purpose through leisure and recreation activities. The recreational therapy program plays a significant role in creating the lasting, positive effects clients experience after receiving treatment at Sanford Behavioral Health.  


ed ad 844 what we treat

Raina Bawden (she/her/hers) is a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist (CTRS) who has a passion for mental health and body positivity. Raina was drawn to Sanford Behavioral Health after seeing there was a CTRS position on the new residential eating disorder unit. Raina is currently working on receiving her Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and Yoga Instructor certifications. During her free time, Raina loves spending time with her husband and animal babies - 3 cats and a dog! She also enjoys traveling, going to antique shops, hiking with friends, rollerblading, and swimming in the waters of Lake Michigan.