Spending more time at home ― as we’ve all been doing for over a year and a half ― has certainly had some perks. More time with family, less time commuting and more time wearing pants with an elastic waistband. One shift not on this list? The number of body image issues that have materialized as a result of our changing lifestyles.
Thanks to our culture’s toxic obsession with thinness and diet culture, many of us have already heard about pandemic-related weight gain (which is a completely normal byproduct of this era in our lives, by the way). However, there’s a far more under-discussed issue that’s been occurring ― it just may not appear that way because of society’s preconceived notions of what’s “healthy” and “unhealthy.” And that’s overexercising.
While exercise by its simplest definition is a healthy habit, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Training too much can negatively affect your mental and physical health, and the signs you may need to dial it back might not be so obvious.
Your brain on exercise
“Exercise is looked at as a good thing, and generally it is,” said Daniel Gallucci, a functional neurologist and co-founder of the brain health app Nuro. “But there is a dose dependency with it, as there is with almost everything in life. For example, drinking water is healthy, but not 10 liters of it a day.”
One of exercise’s biggest benefits is that it helps to release the feel-good hormones like dopamine. But dopamine is bi-directional, Gallucci explained, and this is where you can fall into a tricky spot.
“For someone who has just started getting active, the pleasure centers in the brain are being rewarded as they work out,” he said. “This in turn makes that person want to keep exercising, and perhaps exercise longer or harder. But over time the brain gets used to that reward system and the amount of dopamine is reduced.”
It’s this drop in dopamine that may also spark overexercising, as the person is now trying to ramp up their activity level to feel that same reward, Gallucci noted.
“No matter what, eventually we become immune to the dopamine reward response,” he said. “What was an unexpected pleasure yesterday is now what we feel entitled to today. And it’s not going to be enough for tomorrow.”
The link between exercise and your mental health
First and foremost: Exercise is a benefit when practiced properly. It can reduce stress, improve sleep and overall improve your mental health. But making sure you have the right mental attitude before you do it is key to maintaining a healthy exercise balance.
“As someone starts an exercise program and then sees improvement, be it with their physical abilities or on the scale, they have a tendency to get competitive with themselves,” said Tyra Gardner, a psychotherapist based in Philadelphia.
“That drive you had to start exercising ends up impairing your mental health if you’re not careful,” she continued. “The constant need to feel like you must be the greatest version of yourself causes self-esteem issues and anxiety. The sense of acceptance becomes lost because you start to feel like you can’t accept who you are.”
Another compounding factor to this is social media. “If you’re looking at someone online who is doing the same workouts and exercises you are but has completely different results, that can also cause you to mentally spiral,” Gardner said. “Social media is only a glimpse of someone’s life, and chances are you’re not getting the full picture of what that person is doing. So, there is no reason to feel inadequate and that you have to constantly do more, more, more.”
How to spot an overexercising habit and what to do about it
There are a few signs that your workout schedule is starting to get a little too strict.
A compulsion or deep need to exercise daily is the most obvious sign something may be wrong. If you can’t take a day off without feeling guilt, shame or disgust, you could be dealing with an exercise-related mental health issue. Another sign is constantly having sore muscles and limbs.
Additionally, pay attention to how you feel. Exercise can certainly make you tired, but Gardner said if you find you’re overly fatigued, irritable and have trouble sleeping, these could be red flags. Feelings of depression or mood swings ― especially tied to exercise ― are also possible.
“Overexercising can cause stress hormones in the body to remain elevated for longer periods of time,” added Vivek Cherian, an internal medicine physician at Amita Health in Chicago. “This can negatively affect not just your mental health but your physical health, too.”
Cherian said if you notice hormonal imbalances, muscle strains and injuries, and a decrease in your endurance or performance, it’s time to pause and reset your goals and expectations.
Once you’ve identified that you may be overexercising, it’s important to find out the root cause behind it.
“Speaking to a therapist can help you identify why this may be happening, as well as provide coping strategies to let you exercise without going overboard,” Gardner said.
Carving out time for rest days and allowing your body to recover is important both physically and mentally.
“Keep in mind that exercise doesn’t have to be intense,” Gallucci added. “Even professional athletes don’t train with the same intensity year-round; it would be too much stress on their bodies and mind. Exercising three to four days a week for 30 minutes where you’re doing activity at a conversational pace will help build mitochondria, the energy producers in the body and brain that improve mental health outcomes.”
Most importantly, Gardner said, one of the biggest keys to taking control of your exercise routine is to be kind to yourself.
“Just like with anything else in our lives, we have to create limits and boundaries,” she explained. “Schedule a time to exercise in your day and stick to it. When the time is up, that’s it. Your mental health and body will both appreciate and thrive from activity but also rest.”