Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Drawing a line in the sand: when exercise becomes unhealthy

August 26, 2009 by  
Filed under Body Image

Though the majority of Americans struggle to get enough exercise each day, there’s a small minority of people who  have the exact opposite problem: they are compulsive over-exercisers.

And just like anything else in life, too much of anything — even exercise — isn’t good for us. Over-exercisers are not marathoners or athletes (though they very well could be).

Instead, they’re people who give up socializing for the gym, people who can’t take a rest day without feeling guilt, people who work out to “undo” the damage of the night before, people who double-up on workouts, people who can’t stop until they see X calories burned on their heart rate monitor.

If it sounds like I’m speaking from personal experience, it’s because I am. It probably comes as little surprise that in addition to being a recovering disordered eater, I’m also a recovering over-exerciser.

The two often go hand-in-hand, depending on how someone is hard-wired, especially when someone goes on a weight loss journey and changes their exercise routine along the way.

We all know eating less and moving more usually lead to weight loss. But the lines are often blurred when it comes to how much is “too much.”

Let’s be honest. There’s a difference between planning out your day to fit in a workout (which is often recommended and a healthy step) … and not being able to go to bed until you’ve exercised.

Likewise, there’s a difference between working out five days a week … and working out twice a day.

So why do some people become over-exercisers? Well, for some, they think it will speed up weight loss. For others, like me, it becomes a compulsion. I love routines, plans.

Exercising always gave me a high, so since I don’t drink or do drugs, it became a drug of choice a few months into my Weight Watchers journey. I’d always enjoyed exercising, but was never obsessive about it until then.

I’d feel better afterwards and since it was a “healthy” habit, I could easily justify it.

Days I “couldn’t” fit it in, I’d find a way. Vacation, business trips … there was always a window of time I could carve out.  I didn’t care what I was missing in the outside world; all I cared about was my own little microcosm.

And since my then-boyfriend (now husband) lived overseas at the time, I lived very much like a single woman who could just hit the gym as often as I pleased without anyone really noticing (I’d often go before my roommates woke up).

Friends and colleagues would comment to me that they admired my dedication — but they didn’t know just how twisted the obsession was. Frankly, it’s only in retrospect that I can see just how messed up the situation was.

The truth is, over-exercising has serious ramifications, besides the obvious ones like stressing your muscles and not letting your body rest; creating an unhealthy relationship between body and mind; potentially ruining friendships and relationships because of a sick love affair with the gym.

Realistically, I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep the crazy routines up, and when I got married and moved to Michigan in late 2006, I tried hard to obsess less about exercise and just focus on my new life with my husband in a new place.

It’s taken three years, but I’d say today I am definitely deep into the recovery phase from over-exercising.

I’ll be honest, it’s a struggle still some days to just “stop” when I don’t feel like pushing on at the gym (and where I’d typically push on) … or to accept that a bike ride with my husband or a brisk walk at lunch-time is sometimes simply enough exercise for the day (I used to assume if I wasn’t breaking out in a sweat, it didn’t count).

I’m happy that I can see it differently now, more holistically. For example, I’ve tried to incorporate more non-gym activity into my life, such as joining my co-workers for a walking group at lunch. And I often run errands by bike.

This weekend, my best friend visited and I didn’t once wake up early to work out — something I would have done even a year ago, out of fear of missing a day at the gym.

Instead, I just enjoyed our time together and as it turned out, we walked a lot and went for a couple bike rides. It felt normal, human, fun.

I felt like the old me, the one who wasn’t obsessed with exercise, or food. And I have to say, it felt divine.

Ultimately, I think the only real way to really get over over-exercising is to nip it in the bud as soon as you realize it’s becoming a problem.

Because it took me so many years to see my obsession as a problem, it took me several years to get to where I am now: comfortable with taking a day off; able to just go for a leisurely ride without feeling guilty it’s not torching X calories; trying to view exercise in as much moderation as possible.

I do believe it can be done, if the person is ready and willing to make the mental shift.

Because for as many Americans as there are who can’t seem to get enough exercise, there are also people who get too much. It’s just no one really talks about them … until now.

How about you? Do you know an over-exerciser? Are you one? Where do you draw the line between “enough” and “too much” exercise?



36 Responses to “Drawing a line in the sand: when exercise becomes unhealthy”
  1. laurelg1 says:

    I can completely appreciate those feelings. There was a time when my treadmill broke that I literally went to a neighbors house to use theirs. I too can see this now as an obsession that drove barriers into my social life and more. Now, I formally exercise 2 – 3 times a week and if I don’t “get to”, I know that it’s ok, I can still move on with life.

  2. Suzie says:

    I am also a recovering over exerciser so I can completely relate to this post. Weight Watchers really added to my issues with the “eat less, move more” slogan. There is no stopping point! It’s hard to see when you are overdoing it when all the messages you are getting are positive. It’s really something you have to pay attention for. I started questioning it when my family would say: “you can skip the gym this one time” and my reaction would be anger that they didn’t understand it was the one thing I had, that I needed it. I felt like they were trying to sabotage all my hard work and make me fat. Turns out, they were just concerned, and had every right to be.

    • Lissa says:

      Oh Suzie, that describes exactly how I’d feel … like no one else understood that I HAD to go. 🙁 Glad those days are mostly gone, but it’s still an issue from time to time.

  3. Fab Kate says:

    There was a point where exercising was no longer to improve my life, but became my life. I justified it all sorts of ways, and was telling myself that it was only temporary until I got to my goal weight. Well, I still haven’t gotten to my goal weight, but I’ve stopped doing 4-6 hours a day. Job one isn’t exercise… it’s life.

  4. greenbunny78 says:

    I am pretty sure I still have that problem. Recently I started getting up in the morning to go for a run before the hubby goes to work and I have to take my son to school. Never been a runner, so I am doing the couch to 5k program- and I love it- but I have a REALLY hard time taking rest days. I don’t want to at all, hubby has to MAKE me do it. Its not anywhere near as bad as it was during the worst of my ED though- where during my lunchbreak instead of eating I would go to the gym. THAT was messed up

    • mamaV says:

      Hi greenbunny78: I sounds like you have made progress from your old ED days, and its great you are so into running. Its hard sometimes to distinguish between “runners high” and exercise obsession” –especially after/during ED recovery.

      Plus when you have that history, our loved ones are always worried and at times perhaps overreact because they think we are going down that path again. At least it is that way for me, my dear mom is still weary and questioning…and I’m like– “mom, that was 20 years ago!! Still I’ll always understand and respect her concern because the recovery was so hard on both of us.

      Maybe think about letting your husband be that barometer and trust him when he says its time to take a break. Do you trust his judgement?

      You know, I wish I could go running but I pounded my body into the sand in my teens/early twenties and have permanent back/neck injuries, so I am very limited in what I can do now. In fact, I know that I would have not stopped if it wasn’t for my back injury, I think it was Gods way of saving me from myself.

      Hard lesson to learn though,
      Take care!

      • lissa10279 says:

        Greenbunny, there was a two year span where I think I took maybe 6 rest days and let me tell you, it was awful. Now I try to looka t them as an opportunity to rejuvenate. It’s so hard to change our outlooks from ED to “normalcy” but every step you take is a good one if it’s in the right direction. Rest days are important, and we need them. I agree with MamaV about listening to your husband; maybe even encourage him to go for a walk with you or a bike ride on your “rest days” if it’s too difficult to stop cold turkey?

        MamaV, that injury sounds like it really changed your outlook and as you said, saved you from yourself. I hear that all the time — over-exercisers who get run to the ground. I know when I am sick (which isn’t often) and can’t work out, it’s really hard to stop and assess and take a break…but I always come back stronger. I didn’t fear injury at my worst (most obsessive) but I do now. I want to care for my body so it can care for me.

      • greenbunny78 says:

        Thank you mamaV! I actually do trust my husband’s judgment for the most part. Though he is one of those people who thinks one should only run when chased. But he sees how much more confident and happy I have been since starting. I don’t consider myself an active person, but when I think about it I am- I don’t have a car, so I walk or bike everywhere, with my 2 kids on my bike, which adds about 40 kilos- 5 days a week of taking my son to school on the bike, which is a fair distance. These things just never FEEL like exercise to me, so it can be hard to take a break!

        I am glad to know that you didn’t and don’t push through on activities such as running and hurt yourself- but I bet that was really hard when your children were small!

        Lissa- I agree its hard to shift into “normal” mode after an ED- especially because normal is such a broad term- is what is normal for me normal for someone else? Sometimes the answer is yes, and sometimes its no- and there are no hard and fast rules for it. I try to make my focus health and feeling good about myself. I try hard to catch myself obsessing, and try to take a step back and evaluate if I find myself obsessing about something. Or asking my husband for what he thinks when I think I’m obsessing. It works fairly well, so far.

  5. AlaskaJoey says:

    After I went into maintenance (after losing 70 lbs.) my mother started making noise, worrying I was an exercise addict because I still exercise nearly every day. I used to do a cardio bootcamp DVD, but after a rhomboid muscle injury I needed something gentler, so I bought an elliptical off Craig’s List, but I’m not on it for hours- usually 30 minutes a day.

    I try explaining to her I’m doing it to stay fit, to keep up my muscle tone, and I try to realize that as a mother, she’s always going to complain about something I’m doing, and that she worries because she loves me.

    But it frustrates me that in my family, exercising regularly is seen as something weird or bizarre. But I want to stay healthy, and be in better shape in my 60s then my parents are.

    • lissa10279 says:

      AlaskaJoey, that is hard, when others see average, moderate exercise as “excessive” — it sounds like what you’re doing is healthy and not obsessive or excessive. I know my family thinks I over-exercise even now, when I’m honestly not … it’s a tough balance to create.

    • Susan says:

      AlaskaJoey – if it’s any comfort at all, my mother is the same. She has *no idea* how much I work out and if she did she’d faint. According to her, the only exercise anyone ever needs is walking, but only for 20 minutes a day. Um, if that’s all I did, I’d still weigh 220 pounds.

      She doesn’t know it, but she’s one of the reasons I lost weight and am now into the “fitness lifestyle”. She has Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. My father stopped any form of physical activity when he retired at 60 and now has a high degree of cognitive impairment and limited mobility, but it would never occur to either of them that their lifestyle has anything to do with their health problems.

  6. Susan says:

    Likewise, there’s a difference between working out five days a week … and working out twice a day.

    I have to take issue with the implication that working out twice a day is necessarily excessive. I’m no stranger to pushing my body too hard (I think having the type of personality that leads us to over-eat can also lead us to overdo things in other areas of our lives).

    But I have since learned to find a balance for me as an individual. I’m just about to head off to the gym to do weight training, then after work, I’m going to my regular boxing class. Tomorrow, I’m doing an intense spinning session early in the morning, then some yoga after work to wind down. Yesterday was my rest day, so my only exercise for the day was about 30 minutes of joint mobility drills.

    Would that level of activity be too much for some people? Maybe. Is it too much for me? No, because I am conditioned to that level of exercise, I enjoy it and I am making progress.

    IMO, if you can skip a session without stressing over it, and continue to work out without getting fatigued or injured, you’re not overdoing it.

    • lissa10279 says:

      Hi Susan, I was referring to my days where I’d double up on cardio … like 2 hours. Morning and night, an hour each time or more. It doesn’t sound like you’re doing that, and maybe I should have been more explicit in my post.

      I still sometimes do weights and biking, or weights and cardio and split up a session … but spending 2-3 hours at the gym is crossing the line for most people.

      • Susan says:

        I was referring to my days where I’d double up on cardio … like 2 hours. Morning and night, an hour each time or more.

        Yes, I agree that would be overdoing it for most people (and I seem to remember doing something like that at one point).

  7. MizFit says:

    Amazing amazing post, Lissa.

    I’ve read it a few times and keep returning to your words about this past weekend:

    I had so many clients when I was a personal trainer who overexercised in the way you described and I always struggled with whether to keep them as clients or set them free.

    It was hard to know if I’d be able to impart any wisdom (& I didnt but I always wanted to try.

    Powerful post.

    • lissa10279 says:

      Thanks, MizFit. I imagine that was a tough position to be in; usually an over-exerciser isn’t aware it’s a problem til someone calls them out on it. Then we get defensive … I’m sure you did a great job of leading by example–sometimes that is enough.

  8. julia says:

    I agree w/Susan. I think it’s all about the individual, as far as where the line is, and all about the mind-set, rather than the amount of time spent.

    I’ve been known to enjoy bike rides of over 50 miles, which take several hours. I’m normally doing something active, pretty much every day, for at least an hour.

    For me, the key is that I’m doing things because I want to, because I enjoy them, or just in the normal course of my day (I commute by bicycle or walking) – never as a punishment, in a compulsive fashion, or as a way to cancel out something I ate. On the 3 or 4 days a month I don’t do anything particularly active, I’m perfectly happy to lay around reading a book, and don’t stress.

    I had a housemate in college who would go running everytime she ate “too much” – to me, that’s the kind of thing that’s problematic.

    • lissa10279 says:

      Julia, I do agree it’s about the individual, and I don’t consider a 50 mile enjoyable bike ride over-exercising. It might seem like a lot to someone else, but it’s enjoyable to you — and you’re not doing it compulsively, obsessively. You don’t do it as punishment — you do it because you like it; that’s healthy. There is a fine line.

      But if you felt like you couldn’t eat that day unless you rode, or if you felt like you couldn’t sleep til you rode, or if you rode to undo “damage” … that would be a problem. (i.e., your housemate’s situation).

      On the flipside, I used to tell myself I “loved/enjoyed” cardio … followed by Body Pump … followed by Spinning on Sat. mornings when I lived in DC, and that was a flat-out lie to myself. I just did it to burn calories; not because I loved it. But I convinced myself I did it because I loved it. A fine line to walk.

      • julia says:

        It’s interesting that you weren’t able to admit to yourself that you were doing three classes in a row just to burn calories. Did you start out loving one or two classes and then go off the deep end (as it were), or was it always only about the calories?

        I’ve definitely had periods where I was exercising regularly more because I was trying to lose weight than because I really wanted to be riding a stationary bike, but even though the same sort of impulse to burn calories for the sake of burning calories was operating on me, it was pretty mild – I’m talking 3x a week for 30 or 40 minutes – there was nothing that felt compulsive about it, nor did it escalate.

        I imagine it was something of a lucky break for me that I didn’t get unhealthy about exercising, since I had a long struggle with bulimia, and was no stranger to trying to make up for things I’d eaten through purging. If I’d met my housemate a few years earlier, I probably would’ve thought what she was doing was a great idea… but I was starting on recovery by the time I lived with her.

        I still do a certain amount of dull “by rote” exercise during the winter, in order to maintain my fitness, but it’s not weight-loss oriented – and I don’t think I’m missing any hidden motivation; because of my history, I tend to be quite wary about crossing the line between liking to be strong/fit and having a problem with wanting to be thin… I’m happy to say I haven’t cared about being thin for quite a while.

      • Susan says:

        I still do a certain amount of dull “by rote” exercise during the winter, in order to maintain my fitness.

        Julia – you make a good point about “logging the hours”. If I hadn’t been pushing past my comfort zone and gradually increasing my cardiovascular endurance, I wouldn’t have enjoyed my recent snow-shoeing holiday – nor would I be looking forward to going twice next winter! 🙂

      • lissa10279 says:

        Hi Julia — yea, I honestly just told myself I loved spending four hours at the gym each Sat. morning. I wore it like a badge of honor — pretty pathetic in retrospect. And dangerous, too.

        I did love the two classes at first — Spinning and Body Pump. But then I started getting there earlier and doing cardio before class. Or after. Or both. I think once I realized I was losing weight, I attributed it (in my head) to the exercise when in reality it was the food restriction on WW (not literal restriction — but compared to what I previously ate, it had to have been).

        Good for you that it never escalated to more!!

  9. TWoP Fan says:

    Yesterday I was sick. My stomach hurt, my muscles were very achy and I was really tired. My husband said that maybe I shouldn’t go to the gym. I didn’t, and I felt guilty until I was able to go this morning. Why? Because it wasn’t my scheduled free day. Husband made a good point, that sometimes my body knows what’s better for me than my brain does. While that may be true, I still think deep down that one missed day leads to two which leads to my 30lbs lost coming back on immediately. I know it doesn’t work like that, but…I’m an over-exerciser. I live for the little calories-burned monitor, I strive to burn ‘enough’, if I don’t work hard enough it doesn’t count.

    And I don’t know if I want to change it.

    • lissa10279 says:

      TWoP Fan, that’s just it — and you sound like me two years ago. You have to decide if you want to change it. For me, once I realized just how unhealthy what I was doing was — skipping social functions, doubling up, living by the calorie counts … I had to stop the insanity. I know I won’t be able to keep that level of intensity up when I get pregnant someday or when I have kids. So I’ve tried cutting back, doing shorter workouts but adding in more non-cardio exercise (like biking/walking). It’s so hard for people like us to listen to our bodies, but when we do … it’s always a good thing.

    • tom brokaw says:

      You should be applauded for your discipline and hard work.

  10. Suzie says:

    I also convinced myself at times that I “loved” the gym, and loved working out excessively. It was a total lie and one that I actually believed. I just loved the result but it was usually a chore. I was afraid. Afraid of what might happen if I ate what I normally did, but didn’t work out that day. Immediate weight gain was what I had been convinced would happen. It was constant fear.

    I can say now I truly enjoy my workouts because I don’t overdo them. I wasn’t feeling well today so I just did some walking on an incline rather than push myself. To me that’s a huge sign of my recovery. Actually paying attention to what my body is telling me and then responding to it rather than telling it to take a hike and sweating through it anyway. I believe that by giving my body that respect, it rewards me by not craving binges to make up for my harsh treatment on myself.

    Fear was what kept me from treating myself well, but I realize now that that fear was completely unwarranted.

  11. Suzie says:

    I also convinced myself at times that I “loved” the gym, and loved working out excessively. It was a total lie and one that I actually believed. I just loved the result but it was usually a chore. I was afraid. Afraid of what might happen if I ate what I normally did, but didn’t work out that day. Immediate weight gain was what I had been convinced would happen. It was constant fear.

    I can say now I truly enjoy my workouts because I don’t overdo them. I wasn’t feeling well today so I just did some walking on an incline rather than push myself. To me that’s a huge sign of my recovery. Actually paying attention to what my body is telling me and then responding to it rather than telling it to take a hike and sweating through it anyway. I believe that by giving my body that respect, it rewards me by not craving binges to make up for my harsh treatment on myself.

    Fear was what kept me from treating myself well, but I realize now that that fear was completely unwarranted.
    PS: Wanted to mention great post!

  12. Clare says:

    I’m coming at this from the beginning. I’ve just taken up running as in I’m in my second week and still not running for more than 60 seconds at a time.

    But I’m watching myself. I’m taking up running because I think I’d enjoy it and I’d probably want to do a race for charity one day. But I have a history of depression and solidly hating myself and I can see that I could all to easily end up with disordered something. Yet because of the depression I often give up things I enjoy.

    So another fine line. I have to keep in mind I’m doing it because I enjoy it and not convince myself that I’m too bad to do something I can enjoy.

    And I’ve only been running for two weeks.

    • lissa10279 says:

      Clare, good for you!! And it’s good that you see how you could end up disordered, and don’t want to go down that path. Good for you!! Running is very enjoyable and a great stress-reliever!

  13. Erin Huggins says:

    Yeah this so true sometime i kinda feel bored doing exercise but what keeps me motivated is my blog which a lot of people comment on my progress. Its just a matter of determination and focus. Cheers, Erin

  14. alex says:

    I for one would take over-exercising over over-eating any day of the week. (3 overs in one sentence, that’s a record for me!)

    Anyway, I think one of the reasons that people, myself included, over-exercise is because we become motivated when we start seeing results.

    For example, I started lifting weights 6 months and 70lbs ago. My doctor, nutritionist and brother in law, who’s a certified trainer, all told me the same thing. When it comes to lifting weights it’s very important to take a day off between lifting days. I followed those rules for the first month and then I just started lifting every day. Why? Because I was getting stronger. I felt stronger, I could lift heavier and I could do it for a longer amount a time. In my mind I was thinking, “The exercise is working so why don’t I expedite the results by lifting everyday? ”

    The end result was that I ended pulling a muscle in my back and I was out of commission for 2 weeks. We have to remember to rest. I learned the hard way.

  15. hola says:

    wow…. reading this just really scared the crap out of me.
    I can’t believe that there’s people experiencing the EXACT same thing that i am…

    I go to the gym at least 1h and 30 min every day…
    and before i go, im always anxious and in a pretty bad mood.. it is not until buring more than 1000 calories and getting “the runner’s high” that i am able to smile again and see the bright side of the day.

    It all started out because i was too thin and my family started pushing for me to eat more.. and so i did, but i was feeling so guilty that i started going to the gym to make up for all those extra calories..

    the weird thing tho, its that although i’ve only gained around 3kg, my body looks really really different. Not that i’ve gained too much muscle (since i only do cardio) but the structure of my bones, my hips… my entire proportion its just so different. =( everyone says i look a lot healthier than i did months ago when i was thiner (which only makes me feel fat).

    How can i stop this? im really worried…
    I actually got really sick a few weeks ago, i got a terrible cold.. you would think that a fiber would normally stop a person from going to the gym to do 75 min or cardio.. not me tho =( and i know its messed up.

    i really need help…

  16. body health says:

    Control is the key. Never overdo something. It won’t do any good.

  17. MelAmber says:

    I have been an over exercise-or for MANY years.

    I used to go to the gym 2-3 times a day (and then go to Yoga or for a walk). It was an absolute obsession. I can remember going in for surgery that started at 8am and I hit the gym at 5am. After the surgery I was told not to exercise for 4 weeks. I went for a 5mile walk the next day.

    Those day are gone (as are my size xx jeans) BUT, I still feel like I can not go a day without the gym. In fact, I do not remember that last time in the past year that I have missed one day. So, is this an issue? It is hard for me to understand, because to some, (like my parents) I am OBSESSED. To me, I have scaled WAY back….hmmm


Check out what others are saying about this post...
  1. […] August 26, 2009 Check out my latest post over at WeAretheRealDeal about over-exercising, called “Drawing a line in the sand: when exercise becomes unhealthy.” […]

  2. […] Drawing a line in the sand: when exercise becomes unhealthy « we are the REAL deal watrd.wordpress.com/2009/08/26/toning-it-down – view page – cached #we are the REAL deal RSS Feed we are the REAL deal » Drawing a line in the sand: when exercise becomes unhealthy Comments Feed we are the REAL deal Healthy Beauty Pledge Big dietary changes one small step at a time. Back to School: Brands, Labels, and the Pressure Girls Feel to Have the “Right” Look — From the page […]

WordPress SEO
Get Adobe Flash player Plugin by wpburn.com wordpress themes