A Workout for Your Mind

In our increasingly fitness-focused culture, pushing oneself to the extreme when it comes to exercise is no longer limited to elite athletes.  Rather, many people across all genders and ages are engaging in compulsive exercise under the guise of health; yet, in reality, excessive exercise comes with more costs than benefits for your body. 

What constitutes compulsive exercise, you might ask?  Some signs include:

  • working out primarily to compensate for or justify eating
  • exercising to the point of injury or even while injured
  • difficulty taking days off and missing other obligations, like social gatherings or work commitments, in order to exercise. 

Among people with eating disorders, problematic exercise involves some kind of functional impairment. For a subset of people with eating disorders, exercising interferes with maintaining a healthy weight, which is a key part of recovery (more here on how treatment for an eating disorder can also address problematic exercise). 

Oftentimes, what perpetuates our behaviors, exercise or otherwise, are particular ideas we have.  For example, have you ever heard that leaving the house with wet hair can give you a cold?  Many of us avoid going outside wet-headed after hearing this statement as a child, despite a lack of evidence supporting this claim.  A key step in behavior change involves recognizing and questioning the beliefs underlying the choices. Simply put: not everything we think is true. If you identify yourself or someone you know in the description of unhealthy exercise habits above, read on as we present some of the most common exercise myths that may be behind your routine:

Myth #1: Unused muscle can turn to fat.

This popularly-held belief likely comes from the observation that if we refrain from exercise for an extended period of time, we may notice a decrease in our muscle tone.  However, muscle and fat are two distinct types of tissue, and one cannot turn into the other (think: no matter how furiously you beat a glass of water, it will not turn into cream).  Muscle tissue may relax if unused, but this does not necessarily equal an increase in body fat percentage.  In general, each of our bodies has a preferred level of muscle tone that will change only with extreme amounts of activity or inactivity.

Myth #2: You cannot exercise too much.

If a little of something is good for you, a lot must be great, right?  This is not the case with exercise.  Compulsive exercise can cause all sorts of problems: physical injuries due to over-exercise (for example, stress fractures), missing out on important obligations or social fun due to a rigid exercise routine, and for people with a history of an eating disorder, weight loss, which can interfere with physical and psychological health.  Problematic exercise can also cause a damper in your mood: if you maintain strict rules about how, when and where you work out, you’re likely to experience anxiety, guilt and/or sadness when life gets in the way of your routine.

Myth #3: Certain activities don’t count as exercise.

Many of us have learned that you must sweat a certain amount, or become breathless, or be sore the next day, or experience some other physiological response for your exercise to “count.”  You might even imagine that only someone who spends lengthy amounts of time at the gym can experience benefits from physical activity.  But activity that benefits our bodies is not limited to traditional physical training. Incidental exercise, which consists of activities we might engage in throughout the day, such as cleaning the house, walking instead of driving to run errands and standing rather than sitting can also benefit our physical and mental well-being.  Need proof?  If you, like many of us, suddenly lost the small activities of your day (e.g., walking to the train, standing on the bus, moving between offices) during the Covid-19 lockdown, think back: you likely noticed new aches and pains, tightness and other effects of your suddenly sedentary lifestyle.

Myth #4: There is one best way to exercise.

Just like diets, if you follow the news, you’re likely to read about the “right” way to exercise on a weekly basis.  Articles are typically based on new research findings, and you may have noticed that they frequently contradict each other! One week, high intensity interval training is the most effective way to lose weight. The next week, you may find yourself reading about the benefits of a lengthier, more moderate running routine. Or perhaps you have a co-worker, relative or friend who proclaims with certainty that [Pilates! Kickboxing! Swimming! Yoga with goats!] is the secret to weight loss, longevity, increased energy, or another sought-after effect.  In short: the amount and type of exercise that is right for you will depend on your own goals, and no article or resident office expert can define those for you. 

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