Drawing a line in the sand: when exercise becomes unhealthy
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?