Drawing a line in the sand: when exercise becomes unhealthy

Check out my latest post over at WeAretheRealDeal about over-exercising, called “Drawing a line in the sand: when exercise becomes unhealthy.”

Or read it here, after the jump.

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.

For example, my midnight incidents (when I’d wake on autopilot and eat at two in the morning) began when I began over-exercising in 2005, as a (futile) effort to keep the weight off. All it did was screw with my metabolism. I was hungrier, and then the wake-ups became habitual and the vicious cycle would continue.

I gained weight, weight I haven’t been able to lose. But even that doesn’t phase me so much as the fact that my world was literally revolving around the gym, to the point that it was unhealthy.

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?

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8 thoughts on “Drawing a line in the sand: when exercise becomes unhealthy

  1. When I was compulsively exercising, I didn’t see it as a problem (major denial). I was training for a marathon, and that was “healthy,” right? But the rigidity of my schedule and HAVING to work out at least one hour everyday was too much (looking back on it).

    I think the thing that has helped me with this is actually developing injuries that prevent me from running. It is SO hard to not be able to run, more mentally than anything. But I do look at it as a blessing in some ways. I’ve gotten very much into strength training, for example, and LOVE it! And it really fascinates me that my weight hasn’t changed since being unable to run. It’s freeing, in a way, because I thought I NEEDED exercise to maintain my weight.

    I have a couple of friends who are over-exercisers right now. It’s a tricky thing, because exercise is supposed to be “good” for us. But when you can’t go a day without working out, or you’re working your body to the point of exhaustion, it’s easy to see that it’s not so good for you.

  2. Holly, isn’t it amazing how you’re able to maintain your weight even without the OCD exercising? I’m sorry for your injuries but it does seem like you got something beneficial from having to change up your routine.

  3. There was a time in my life that I neglected social plans in favor of the gym. I even skipped classes in grad school if that was my only time to go to the gym. Yikes. I love working out but have definitely learned over the years how to work out smarter, not harder or more. Quality over quantity. I also have found no correlation between amount of exercise and weight loss. Sure it can help but it truly is about how much you eat. The amount of exercise needed for overall good health is actually pretty low.

  4. Good point, Lara. Everyone says WL is 80% about food and 20% about exercise … but I find it much easier to over-exercise than under-eat. It’s finding that delicate balance that’s so tricky!

    1. Actualy I think diet is 100%. If your diet is not in check all the exercise in the world is not going to lead to weight loss!

      1. True!! but if someone doesn’t exercise and starts, I think that can help spur WL if they’re eating right too. But I tend to do it the other way around — work out too much and still eat too much to lose. Not too much maybe to maintain, b/c I am … I keep saying “I’ve gained” but that’s over three years so it’s more of a gradual slope than a sudden gain. Exercise hasn’t changed, food is too much still.

  5. Melissa – what you just said in that last comment sums up my over-excercising reasoning: i would so much rather push myself to extremes in the gym if that will allow me to eat more. Cutting out foods just isn’t an option for me so i’ve developped a ridiculous excercise regime to compensate because i am a small person and really can’t eat much without gaining. I am trying to get myself to a place where i tone it down, but i’m just not there yet:(

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