Avera Medical Minute: Eating disorder awareness week

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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (DAKOTA NEWS NOW) - Shannon Nielsen enjoys feeling good while working out at the Avera McKennan Fitness Center in Sioux Falls. If you saw her back in high school, you may have recognized her struggle with an eating disorder and overexercising. Friends and family voiced their concerns.

"It became more of an obsession for me of how much I was eating and then working that off with exercise and it kind of snowballed through the summer of my junior year," said Nielsen.

The depth of her struggle was kept from others. "I was very sneaky with it. Hiding food as well as exercising in the middle of the night late when my mom thought I was sleeping," said Nielsen.

And her mother finding help likely saved Shannon's life. "That was a big part of why I'm here today. I was not the nicest person to her. I didn't want her help but she never gave up on me," said Nielsen.

The turning point for Shannon came during inpatient treatment in Minneapolis. "I was 96 pounds. I was being threatened with a feeding tube. Then I realized something's wrong. I was being told I was going to die from this," said Nielsen.

Avera Counselor Mary Dressing helps many patients with eating disorders. "People will start the path of an anorexic and then migrate into a bulimic kind of behavior where they're binging and purging," said Dressing.

Dressing says a healthy amount of exercise is 2 and a half to five hours per week, but that can sometimes be skewed by someone struggling with food. "But they might be spending two hours at the gym and it's seven days a week and they won't allow themselves a rest day," said Dressing.

Resources include in-patient treatment, one-on-one counseling and support groups, which can help find balance in the view of exercise.

"So that it's more playful, that it's a good tool, a healthy coping skill, relaxation stress-reducing activity that could be beneficial," said Dressing.

Shannon has come a long way from when she used to view exercise as self-punishment.

"My focus on exercise has changed. It's a celebration that if you fuel your body right, you can exercise and perform at a better level," said Nielsen.

It's a message she wants to share with anyone struggling.

"I just hope that I can be an example that you can get better, you can have a healthy relationship with food and exercise and have a great life," said Nielsen.

A monthly eating disorder support group meets the third Thursday of every month at the Ronning Branch Library meeting room in Sioux Falls.