Hampshire Regional YMCA

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Exercise is great! It improves our health—heart, lungs, metabolism (how we make and burn fuel to live and be active), bones, and more. Exercise is also great for mental health, and is as effective as antidepressant medication for many people! There are so many benefits to exercise that the American College of Sports Medicine created the global health initiative, “Exercise is Medicine”.

AND, like any great thing, more isn’t always better. In fact, too much exercise can be dangerous to our health. Exercise can also become an addiction, and exercise compulsion is strongly linked to some eating disorders. You need rest and recovery time! Some people even find that when they exercise less, they actually meet their goals more easily.

What IS overexercising? There’s a big range of what people can do with their bodies, so it’s not always clear when it’s too much. One key factor is failure to properly recover—whole body or individual muscle groups. Another factor is if you are consistently exercising to exhaustion.

 The facts:

  • While 3% of gym-goers are believed to have a destructive relationship with exercise, some studies show higher rates: one study found up to 42% of those using the gym have a destructive relationship with exercise
  • 40-80% of individuals with anorexia nervosa also use excessive exercise to avoid weight gain
  • 90-95% of college students with an eating disorder are also gym-goers
  • One study found that all (100%) of its gym-going participants felt they would benefit from greater education and guidelines for identifying and addressing eating disorders
  • Overexercise may be a way of trying to manage or cope with difficult emotions and underlying mental/emotional disorders, including depression and anxiety

 Dangers of overexercising

  • Suppressed/ineffective immune system: get sick more often, take longer to recover, and take longer to heal after injury
  • Greater risk for injury: you’re tired and you slip or good form goes out the window, or you can get an overuse injury
  • Because you’re at greater risk for injury and it takes longer to heal, too much exercise means that you can be sidelined for weeks or even months
  • Low bone density: this can lead to osteoporosis—porous and brittle bones—and is a bigger risk for women. A big warning sign that you could be losing bone density is amenorrhea: abnormal/irregular or no menstruation
  • Sleep disruption (and that affects a lot of your health!)
  • Extreme muscle breakdown: rhabdomyolysis—this can be life threatening
  • Slowed metabolism: your body tries to conserve energy, so it slows down the process of making usable energy. This means you’re more tired, cold, can’t perform well, and have a harder time losing weight (if that’s your goal)
  • Heart attack: changes to metabolism and other body systems put stress on the heart and blood vessels that, over time, increase the risk of sudden heart attack. The additional strain of exercise puts this risk up even higher—especially when combined with some eating disorders

What can I do if I think I’m overexercising?

  • Developing a good relationship with exercise is critical. Exercise IS really good for you, so it’s about finding the right balance
  • Stick to the ACSM guidelines: 150 minutes of moderate cardiovascular activity each week (or 75 minutes of vigorous), 3 days of muscle strengthening exercise (~30 minutes per day), 3 days of flexibility work, and balance/agility work on most days. Some people can go up to 300 minutes a week of moderate activity, or do strengthening exercise 5-6 days a week. However, if you’re struggling with overexercise, be cautious
  • Take at least one rest day/day off per week. You can still be active, just take it easier and do fun things instead of hitting the gym, like an easy kayak, or pick-up soccer
  • Check your “gym buddies”—if the people you hang out with at the gym are overexercising, you’re much more likely to do so, too. Seek out others with healthy relationships to exercise
  • Engage in mindful movement
    • Reframe the reason you are exercising—honor your body, paying attention to how you want your body to feel and perform for health and wellness rather than changing body size/shape/weight
    • Pay close attention to how your body feels before, during, and after exercise. Consider keeping a journal to help you identify positive vs overexercise experiences, and look for places you may want to modify your exercise behavior
    • Seek out positive exercise experiences and figure out what feels good/right to support health and wellness
    • Exercise does NOT have to make you exhausted and/or sore to be effective! Doing this once in a while is ok, but every workout should not make you feel this way
    • Exercise should feel empowering and help your body feel good. You can also engage in physically active activities that you enjoy instead, like going for a nature walk or playing active games like tag or soccer with your kids
  • Talk openly with a fitness professional, and let them know your concerns. They can help identify if your exercise behavior is problematic, and help you find resources and support
  • If you think you may have an exercise addiction or overexercise, seek professional help. You also may want to re-evaluate your relationship with food, since overexercise often goes hand-in-hand with some eating disorders. A therapist can be a critical part of recovery

Not everyone who exercises a lot is a compulsive exerciser. Many athletes and others engage in a lot of exercise, sometimes even putting in multiple sessions a day. However, if you see yourself here in this post, remember that you deserve to be treated well, especially by you, and seek help!

Signs you might be overexercising:

  • You’re tired. A lot
  • You keep getting injured and it takes longer to recover/heal
  • You’re exercising even though you’re injured
  • Others making comments about how much you exercise or ask if you’re ok
  • Your workout quality is going downhill—you’re making mistakes, not able to keep up the pace/length/intensity, can’t do as much as you were before
  • You’re always/very often sore
  • Your resting heart rate is going up (when measured regularly day-today)
  • You’re depressed and/or irritated more often
  • You’re getting sick more than usual
  • You’re having a harder time concentrating
  • Your metabolism is slowing down
  • You “can’t possibly” take a day off, and feel guilty or anxious if you do
  • You miss out on other activities to exercise and prioritize exercise over most/all other things
  • Your food intake is always based on how much exercise you’re going to get that day
  • You have withdrawal symptoms when you don’t exercise (depression, shaking)
  • If you miss a session, you feel like you have to “make it up”
  • You feel like you need more exercise to get the same benefits
  • You lie about how much you’re exercising

See the Wellness bulletin board for a great activity to help quiet those negative inner voices, boost confidence and inspire positivity – write a love letter to yourself!