Media messages encouraging us to exercise away our “flaws” are rampant, particularly in these summer months when many people are self-conscious about wearing bathing suits and dressing for warmer weather. We’re nearly halfway through summer but the seasonal cultural pressures to attain the “perfect” beach body are still in full swing. The relentless marketing often focuses on incorporating the most strenuous new workouts, squeezing in more time at the gym, pushing just a little bit harder and faster every step of the way. When it comes to exercise, the message almost always seems to be more, more, more.
It’s true that staying active and engaging in exercise is a positive activity that can have long-lasting benefits for physical and mental health. However, it becomes increasingly important in our “faster, longer, harder, more” exercise culture to ask ourselves, can you have too much of a good thing? The Answer: Absolutely.
More is not always better.
Exercise can quickly become unhealthy when taken to extremes or when the body is not equipped with proper nourishment. Individuals who struggle with perfectionism, rigidity, obsessive/compulsive behavior, addiction or eating disorders are particularly at-risk for engaging in over-exercise (also referred to as exercise abuse or obsessive exercise.) These individuals often start out with moderate exercise goals in an attempt to change their weight/body shape but can easily slip into patterns that become compulsive.
Often, the same messages that promote extreme exercise also encourage people to ignore their body’s cues – to push past pain and exhaustion in order to reach goals. But when you override your body’s need for rest, healing, or even medical attention, it can have long-term negative consequences on health, not to mention on overall fitness and athletic performance. Furthermore, exercise and weight loss goals may gradually become more and more extreme, and thus more and more dangerous. It’s important to note that even individuals who do not appear underweight, may be exercising obsessively or working out beyond what is healthy for their body. Even high caliber athletes are at risk.
“It is no secret among athletes that in order to improve performance you’ve got to work hard. However, hard training breaks you down and makes you weaker. It is rest that makes you stronger. Physiologic improvement in sports only occurs during the rest period following hard training.” [Overtraining Syndrome]
Signs & Symptoms of Excessive Exercise
Because exercise is such a socially acceptable and culturally applauded behavior, it can be difficult to identify when someone is engaging in healthy activity and when they may have crossed the line to over-exercise. It’s particularly important for coaches, trainers, fitness instructors and other professionals in the exercise industry to be aware of the warning signs and red flags that someone may be struggling with obsessive exercise. These are just some of the signs that an individual may have an unhealthy relationship with exercise:
- Exercises above and beyond what would be considered a normal amount of time (For athletes, prolonged training above and beyond that required for the sport)
- Refusal to build in days of rest or recovery; Exercises despite injury or illness
- Athletic performance plateaus or declines (Overtraining Syndrome)
- Rigidity, inflexibility regarding exercise schedule
- Excessive concern with body aesthetic
- Withdrawal effects (sleep/appetite disturbance, mood shifts, intense anxiety) and feelings of depression or guilt when exercise is withheld
- Exercise is prioritized over family, work, school or relationships (sometimes to the point of neglecting important responsibilities or obligations)
- Exercise is the person’s only way of coping with stress
- Deprives self of food if unable to exercise (feels he/she has not “earned” or “does not deserve” the calories)
- Defines overall self-worth in terms of exercise performance
- After workouts, is plagued by thoughts like “I didn’t do enough” or “I should have done more”
- Rarely takes part in exercise for fun. Activities like hiking, paddle boarding, etc, don’t seem like “good enough” exercise.
If you or someone you know identify with this list, it may be time to step back and take an honest assessment of the exercise relationship.
Excessive exercise not only interferes with an individual’s daily life and interpersonal relationships, but it is also dangerous. Excessive exercise can easily result in overuse injuries and stress fractures which could be temporary or permanent. Women may have menstrual irregularity and men may experience a decrease in testosterone. Among the many other potential consequences, exercising too much can lead to decreased immunity and frequent colds or illnesses. Over-exercise is often a sign of an underlying eating disorder. Furthermore, recent research found that the frequency of over-exercise predicted suicidal gestures/attempts and concluded that excessive exercise should be noted as a potential warning sign of suicidality among individuals with bulimia. [source: Eating Disorders Review, May/June 2013]
If your body is telling you that it needs a rest…
You should never exercise when you are sick or injured. When you have a fever, fatigue or muscle injuries, take the day off to help your body heal. Even a very healthy body needs adequate rest in between workouts. It’s recommended that you take at least two days off a week to allow your body time for healing and recovery. Also, make sure that you are properly providing your body with enough carbohydrates, dietary fats, proteins and water to fuel your workouts. Proper hydration is critical when working out. Dehydration can lead to overheating, muscle fatigue, headache, nausea and it impairs your body’s ability to transport oxygen.
Maintain a Healthy Relationship with Exercise
There are many ways to have a healthy relationship with exercise. First, it is extremely important that you have spoken to your doctors and they have all cleared you for exercise. Just like many things in life, moderation is the key to success. Focus on establishing a balance between working out and other experiences, relationships and responsibilities in your life. Consider combining a variety of activities that you enjoy and are convenient to your lifestyle instead of becoming overly attached to one type of exercise for a specific amount of time each day. Hiking, golfing, dancing, biking, tennis, kayaking and taking your dog for that much needed walk are great ways to be active in different ways. Remember that the goal of healthy exercise is not to change your body but to care for your body so that it will allow you to enjoy your life.
If you think you may be struggling with excessive exercise, we encourage you to talk with someone close to you and seek help to establish a healthier relationship with exercise. You can also visit www.eatingdisorder.org or call us (410) 938-5252.
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The Exercise Balance: What’s Too Much, What’s Too Little, and What’s Just Right for You! By Pauline Powers M.D. and Ron Thompson Ph.D.
Blog contributions by Amy Gooding, Psy.D., CED Therapist