Exercise is a major weapon in the fight against obesity and the many health-related problems it causes. A person who doesn't exercise has a low level of physical fitness. An individual who exercises moderately experiences some physical benefits, while a regular exerciser is at a greater health advantage. But at what point does the body reach an exercise balance? When does exercising cease to be beneficial-and may in fact harm the individual?
The Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate--or 75 minutes of vigorous--aerobic activity a week, combined with strength training exercises twice a week. Moderate aerobic exercise includes swimming, walking rapidly, or mowing the lawn. Vigorous aerobic exercise includes running and jogging. Strength training can range from push-ups and leg squats to using free weights and weight machines.
Increasing your workout time from 150 to 300 minutes will provide even greater health benefits. However, going significantly over 300 minutes of exercise a week isn't advisable. Sue Beckman, Associate Director of Education at the Cooper Institute, says that too much exercise can be hazardous to your health. Overworking the body without allowing it time to rest can have wide-ranging repercussions, including:
- Lack of sleep
- Loss of appetite
- Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
- Muscle fatigue
- Subsequent injury
- Inflammation and tissue breakdown or damage
- For some people with underlying diseases, co-morbid factors, or addictive behaviour, over-exercising can also lead to depression, mood changes, and mood affect disorders
An unhealthy view, preoccupation or obsession with exercise to the degree that it interferes with your ability to focus or concentrate is known as "compulsive exercise." Suzanne Girard Eberle, a registered dietician and nutrition therapist who works with people who struggle with eating disorders and excessive exercise issues, says that compulsive exercisers may exhibit the following warning signs:
- Exercising at any cost, even if it means skipping classes or missing work
- Turning down social activities that conflict with a scheduled workout
- Feeling guilty, anxious, or angry when they can't exercise
- Exercising alone to avoid disruptions to the routine
- Refusing to take time off from exercising, even if they're injured
- Equating how they feel about themselves with how much they exercised that day
- Restricting what they eat if they can't exercise that day
According to Eberle, a former elite runner, and the author of Endurance Sports Nutrition, compulsive exercise is frequently associated with eating disorders. Females with these combined disorders are at risk for menstrual irregularities, electrolyte abnormalities and accelerated loss of bone density, which can lead to injury, stress fractures and osteoporosis.
For some people, over-exercising is a way to either achieve or maintain an unrealistic body image. For others, it's a way to deal with and release negative feelings like anger, anxiety, and depression. According to Dr. Karin Kratina, RD, "Dependent exercisers have been working out their bodies rather than their problems. Without effective coping mechanisms, they become overwhelmed and are compelled to exercise again to control unwanted feelings. What began as the pursuit of pleasure has become the avoidance of pain."
Since most over-exercisers have repetitive exercise motions, Dr. Kratina suggests breaking the cycle by changing exercise habits. For example:
- Run in the opposite direction: start at the usual end point and run to the starting point
- Change the order: if you normally lift weights first, do it last
- Take a different aerobics class
- Switch activities: try swimming instead of running
- Don't measure your exercise (50 crunches, 5 miles, 15 minutes), just do it
- Reduce the frequency, duration, and intensity of the exercise
Reducing your exercise time will allow you to increase involvement in other areas of your life. Start spending time with friends, plant a garden, take up a new hobby, or read a book. The ultimate key to healthy living is maintaining balance.