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How much is too much? When exercising becomes unhealthy

By Madalyn Oliver

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When incorporated as part of a balanced lifestyle, exercise can play an important role in keeping your body healthy and strong. It can strengthen bones and muscles, reduce the risk of a heart attack, enhance circulation, lower blood pressure, decrease the risk of falls, raise metabolism, improve mood and increase energy levels.

The Australian Physical Activity Guidelines for adults (18-64 years) give the following weekly recommendations to maintain an optimum level of health:

  • Be active on most, preferably all, days every week
  • Engage in 150-300 minutes (2 ½ hours to 5 hours) of moderate intensity physical activity or 75 to 150 minutes (1 ¼ to 2 ½ hours) of vigorous physical activity, or an equivalent combination of both moderate and vigorous activities
  • Engage in muscle strengthening activities on at least 2 days per week
  • For those that are currently doing no physical activity, start by doing some and then gradually build up to the recommended amount

However, for far too many individuals, participating in physical activity is driven by an obsessive pursuit of thinness rather than for health or fitness. Further, given that the pursuit of physical fitness is often glorified in our society there is plenty of encouragement and justification for going to whatever extremes are necessary to conform to the ideal standard of beauty. Often, this means exercising to a point that is no longer contributing to our health but rather is a detriment to it with potential implications including insomnia, depression, fatigue, anxiety, bone fractures, damage to cartilage and ligaments, amenorrhea and social isolation.

So how do you know if you have developed an unhealthy relationship with exercise? Consider your responses to the questions below.

  • Do you skip social events if they interfere with your exercise schedule?
  • Do you experience severe stress and/or emotional upset if you miss a scheduled day of exercise?
  • Do you regularly force yourself to do exercise you don’t like?
  • Can you enjoy rest days without guilt?
  • Do you force yourself to work out despite injury or illness?
  • Do you judge your day as good or bad depending on how much you have exercised?
  • Do you judge a workout by calories burned, kilometres run, or any other external factor?
  • Do you only allow yourself to eat certain foods on “workout days”?
  • Do you have an irregular menstrual cycle, or are you missing it all together?
  • Do you set unattainable goals (hours worked out, percentage of body fat etc.)?
  • Have others expressed concerns about the amount you are exercising?

In order to develop a positive and balanced relationship with exercise it is important to steer away from a focus on burning calories and losing weight and rather focus more on finding a way that you can move your body in a way that feels good and rewarding. Healthy exercise should be flexible, varied and enjoyable rather than rigid and inflexible. More importantly, exercise should be done out of love and respect for your body, not because of self-hatred or punishment.

If you noticed that you answered yes to one or more of the questions above or would like some support to develop a healthy relationship with exercise, please contact us at BodyMatters Australasia to schedule an appointment to see one of our therapists.

References:

Australian Government Department of Health. (2014). Australia’s Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines for Adults (18-64 years). Retrieved from http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/content/health-pubhlth-strateg-phys-act-guidelines

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