Open a magazine, turn on the television, glance at highway billboards or Internet ads and the message about fitness is clear as day: Exercise does a body good.
But as a clinician who works regularly with people struggling with negative body image, disordered eating behavior, like extreme dieting or binge eating, and weight, I am compelled to add: Exercise does a body good, except when it doesn’t.
Consider the woman who must stay on the treadmill until she’s burned 500 calories for the workout to “count.” Or the student who rearranges her classes to be able to fit in daily double-workouts.
What if exercise is interfering with a dad’s ability to cheer on his son at after-school tennis matches? What if putting in hours at the gym is the only way a doctor can suppress frustration with her husband for not understanding the demands of her work?
Exactly when does exercise go bad? Objectively, exercise goes bad if it interferes with maintaining a healthy weight range (as can be the case with a problem like anorexia nervosa), occurs in proportionate, direct response to what you’ve been eating (as sometimes seen in people with bulimia nervosa), or otherwise impacts your physical (e.g., bone) or psychological health.
In many cases, however, the potential excessiveness or unhealthiness of a person’s exercise routine is more subjective.
How might unhealthy or excessive exercise be measured?
- It’s all about the numbers. If numbers – weight, pant size, calories burned, duration of the workout, or distance accomplished – is the primary focus of your exercise routine, this can be cause for concern. This is because emphasizing numbers over the gestalt of the experience (the mood boost, perhaps, or the sensations in your body as you put it to work) puts you at risk to obsess over quantity and outcome, rather than quality and process.
- Everyday is more of the same. Difficulty switching it up is another sign of an overly rigid exercise plan. Conversely, varying the type (e.g. running, swimming, yoga), intensity/duration, and setting (e.g., solo, group) of exercise is a marker of health. Flexibility with the routine is good for you mentally, as it encourages a broad definition of what it means to be active and fit. And it’s good for you physically, because different modalities of exercise target unique muscle groups and emphasize particular facets of fitness such as speed, flexibility, or mental focus.
- You can’t live without it. Taking days off is a critical part of a healthy exercise regimen – after all, even competitive athletes build in rest days to give their bodies a chance to recuperate. If taking days off to rest up feels impossible, despite work obligations, travel, or injury, then it’s definitely time to reevaluate your relationship with exercise.
- You are burying your feelings with every step. Exercise can be a wonderful outlet for emotions, but beware of using it to suppress your feelings or to ignore dealing with them head-on. If you are using exercise to cope with or vent out negative emotions, make sure this is one of many strategies to deal with however you feel. Adding relaxation to your day and talking with friends and loved ones are among the other potentially effective ways to metabolize your feelings.
- Exercise is in charge of you, rather than the reverse. You may be telling yourself that exercise helps you to feel in control of life’s demands. But if it is actually causing you to ignore other responsibilities – in school, at work, at home, or in your relationships – then it’s time to assert some real control and change your fitness habits. If you’re consistently choosing a ‘big sweat’ over other previously pleasurable activities, cuddling up on the sofa to read a book, playing with your dog, or watching a funny movie perhaps, it’s important to regain that activity equilibrium.
Moderate exercise, which for most people means about 40-minute sessions four times per week, is sufficient to reap all of exercise’s benefits on mood, cognition and sleep. And remember that a well-exercised body must also be a well-fed body.
If you suspect that exercise has gone bad for you, stretch yourself by making gradual changes to your routine and see how it feels. If it feels awful or proves impossible to implement change, consider speaking with a clinician, a therapist or physician, for a second opinion and for help exercising a healthier exercise mindset.