Exercise – when is it too much of a good thing?

June 11, 2015

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A Certified Eating Disorders Registered Dietitian (CEDRD) with a master's degree in dietetics & nutrition. My passion is helping you find peace with food - and within yourself.

Meet Katy

In a world where the popular belief is that if some is good, more must be better, we are out of balance.  Exercise enthusiasts are constantly finding ways to make exercise more extreme, from ultra-super-duper-marathons to crazy high-intensity-don't-listen-to-your-body workouts.  Those who "merely" do moderate amounts of activity are made to feel like they're not true athletes because they're not doing enough.  And most of the population falls into the sedentary category, defeated by the prospect of doing something that feels like it would be so much work and so unsustainable. 

There's no denying the positive impact of exercise, including improved cardiopulmonary functioning, insulin sensitivity, sleep and energy.  Studies also show exercise can fight off disease, and it can help manage anxiety and depression.  But we've heard all of this before, and it's not really motivating most people.

Yet, for some people exercise becomes an obsession, and it's positively reinforced by our culture.  We look on in admiration of those who keep going like the Energizer Bunny.  But there is a point at which it becomes too much.  Too much for the body to handle, and it breaks itself down.  Too much for social functioning because the exercise takes up so much time and energy.  Too much for mental health due to the preoccupation. 

But it's hard to recognize when exercise has become too much because we're told that it's impossible to overdo it.  An insurance company "health coach" once made an unsolicited call and told a client of mine (who was on exercise restriction due to her eating disorder) that there's no such thing as overexercise.  We're praised for the obsession.  Our brain becomes hooked on the boost of chemicals from the exercise.  It gives a person a false sense of superiority and enoughness. 

You are enough, regardless of how much you do or don't exercise. 

Some signs of overexercise:

  • Decrease in strength or endurance
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Poor sleep
  • Elevated resting heart rate
  • Poor immunity, getting sick often
  • Loss of appetite
  • Irritability, depression, apathy
  • Loss of interest in activity, it feels like a chore
  • Avoiding social activities in order to exercise
  • Lying about how much you're exercising
  • Not being able to think about anything other than exercise

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it may mean you need to take a break from exercise.  If you are unable to give yourself permission to take a break, this may be a sign of disordered exercise, a frequent eating disorder symptom.  Seek treatment from an eating disorder professional.

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