What is one message that we’ve heard from our government, health care professionals, school teachers and the media? “Eat well and exercise to be healthy”. Here on the blog, we’ve taken a lot of time to discuss our misperceptions about healthy eating, as well as the influence diet culture has on our relationship with food and with our bodies. What we haven’t talked about as much is exercise. Just as the idea of “eating well” or “eating clean” can be taken to the extreme and become damaging to our health, excessive or compulsive exercise can be equally destructive. Though gentle nutrition and engaging in movement can both be health-promoting behaviours, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing!
Excessive or compulsive exercise is often related to eating disorders2, though not always. Some people may overexercise in attempts to compensate for food they have eaten, change their appearance, or meet certain athletic goals3. Compulsive or excessive exercise is evidenced by valuing exercise as a top priority in life5, so that exercise interferes with work, school, social functions, sleep3 and personal health. It often involves sticking to a very regimented exercise routine5, even during injury or sickness1,5,7. Anything that threatens to disrupt this workout schedule may provoke feelings of anxiety or anger in the individual. During exercise, individuals may also experience increased anxiety due to feeling continuous pressure to make their workouts more and more difficult8.
Overexercising can cause a lot of damage in many areas of our lives. Physically, it can cause stress factures, dangerously low heart rates, reproductive dysfunction and osteoporosis7. Psychologically, it can contribute to insomnia, anxiety, and depression6. Socially, excessive exercise can lead to social isolation and the loss of important relationships6. If overexercising is something you are struggling with, we want to help you rethink your fitness regimen and replace it with more sustainable (and enjoyable!) habits.
One of the first things that we recommend you do is take a break from your exercise routine. By stepping back for a period of time, you will be better able to reflect on your activity habits and how they may be causing issues in your life5,8. Stopping overexercising, however, is easier said than done. Exercise may have become an addiction that is almost involuntary, especially when someone is struggling with an eating disorder. In this case, some drastic measures may need to be taken to put a stop to excessive exercise. First and foremost, it is critical for anyone with an eating disorder to seek help from a team of health care professionals because an eating disorder is a serious mental illness that requires treatment. In addition to professional help, there are resources to aid you in your personal struggle with overexercising. Kelty Mental Health has put together a great resource for parents with children battling an eating disorder, and one section offers tips for helping children to stop overexercising. These tips are applicable to any person, at any age, who needs help stopping overexercising, and we’ve paraphrased them for you here:
- If you tend to exercise in your room, it may be necessary to take your bedroom door off its hinges, always keep your door open, or get a roommate to allow for accountability. You may also need to rearrange your bedroom so there is less floor space for exercise.
- If you feel you need to exercise, try to do a less intense version of the movement. If you wanted to go for a jog, opt for a walk instead. Also, when you do engage in physical activity, don’t do it alone. Go with a trusted friend or family member who can keep you in check.
- Remove all exercise equipment from your home (i.e. bikes, rollerblades, weights, etc.).
- If you are in school and have a mandatory gym class, have a trusted adult talk to your school about having you exempt from this class until further notice4.
Counselling is another valuable time investment – by receiving counselling from a trained professional, you will be able to learn healthier ways of coping. These coping mechanisms can then be employed instead of exercise when you face difficult emotions and life circumstances. A counsellor or therapist can also help you to identify unhelpful thought patterns and then reframe your thoughts and perceptions of exercise8.
Once you’ve taken a considerable break from physical activity, allowing yourself to rest and reset, you may feel ready to begin being active again. It is useful to begin being active with the mindset that movement is meant to nurture your body. Remember that movement should be enjoyable, sustainable and energizing. It is usually helpful to avoid “cardio” activities at first, because cardio is the type of activity that is most often abused by those who overexercise8. So instead of heading to the gym or going for a run, re-introduce yourself to movement more gently. Incorporate activities that you enjoy into your everyday life. For example, you could take an evening walk around your neighbourhood, play volleyball next time you go to the beach, practice yoga in the morning or enjoy a weekend hiking trip1. And when you do participate in movement, always invite someone to join you. That person could be a friend, a family member, your therapist or really anyone you know that has a healthy relationship with movement and can help keep you accountable to not over-exerting yourself. You’ll find that having a companion during physical activity makes movement more enjoyable, and also provides an opportunity for you to talk about and process the feelings you experience as you move your body.
Exercise can become a destructive practice when we let it dominate our lives, but you are never “in too deep.” You can find freedom from excessive exercise by taking a break, getting help to reframe your thinking, practicing healthier coping mechanisms and engaging in positive movement.
- Costin, C. (2014). Fit or fanatic: when does exercise become an unhealthy obsession? In Eating disorder hope. Retrieved from https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/information/orthorexia-excessive-exercise/fit-or-fanatic-when-does-exercise-become-an-unhealthy-obsession
- Davis, C., Katzman, D. K., Kaptein, S., Kirsh, C., Brewer, H., Kalmbach, K., & Olmsted, M. F. The prevalence of high-level exercise in the eating disorders: etiological implications. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 38(6), 321-326. doi: 1016/S0010-440X(97)90927-5
- Hutchinson, H. (2010). Exercising and eating: when to say “no” to over-exercising and “yes” to basic health. In Eating disorder hope.Retrieved from https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/information/orthorexia-excessive-exercise/risks-over-exercising
- Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre. (n.d.) Parents survive to thrive guide. In Kelty eating disorders. Retrieved from https://keltyeatingdisorders.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/BCMH026_EatingDisorder_FullGuide_v6-Web.pdf
- Orthorexia, excessive exercise & nutrition.(2018). Retrieved from https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/information/orthorexia-excessive-exercise
- Rollin, J. (2016, March 18). Excessive exercise and eating disorders [Web log post].Retrieved from https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/blog/excessive-exercise-and-eating-disorders
- The Meadows Ranch. (2018). Exercise compulsion and its dangers. In Eating disorder hope. Retrieved from https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/information/orthorexia-excessive-exercise/compulsive-exercising
- Weltzin, T. E. (2008) Causes, diagnosis & treatment options of excessive exercise. In Eating disorder hope. Retrieved from https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/information/orthorexia-excessive-exercise/diagnosis-evaluation-causes-treatment