Maintaining a Healthy Relationship With Exercise in 2015

Published: December 31, 2014

With the New Year just around the corner, many people may make the resolution to start exercising more. For some folks, this resolution turns into a healthy, balanced addition to their life. For others it can start to feel like a relationship gone bad. It may start casually, with a few extra minutes walking or running on the treadmill, but then quickly spiral out of control. We aren’t fully sure why this happens to some people, but it is likely due to a combination of genetic and environmental risk factors. We also know exercise can improve mood and help calm anxiety (possibly through negative energy balance for some people), and it is sometimes a very effective coping strategy when used appropriately. However, that doesn’t mean all exercise is “healthy” or balanced. Even for a seasoned athletes like myself, it can always be a good idea to keep our relationship with exercise in check. With that in mind, I thought I would offer a few suggestions and identify a few warning signs that may indicate you need to reassess your relationship with exercise.

1) You find yourself obsessing about your next workout and feel compelled to exercise.

These feelings can become especially problematic when you start to experience guilt about taking time off and miss out on social, professional, or academic events because you are spending your time exercising. Similarly, when you spend too much mental energy thinking about exercise, you may find it hard to concentrate on tasks and complete daily activities. For athletes, exercising in addition to your normal practice hours could be a similar sign.

2) You continue to exercise without rest or recovery, even though you feel injured, sick, burnt out, and/or have negative health consequences.

There comes a point in most moderate to vigorous exercises where it is common to feel tired and sore. However, it is important to distinguish these transient “symptoms” from more potentially serious and chronic outcomes of over-exercising. If you ever feel sharp, stabbing, or shooting pain, you should stop what you are doing and consult your healthcare provider. Continuing to exercise could exacerbate the injury and lead to substantially more problems down the road. Many people may not know, but “burnout” is actually a real thing for athletes. Symptoms include feeling exhausted, depressed, irritable, tense, and disappointed in athletic accomplishments. Remember that everyone needs days off from exercise; this rest is vital to feeling good and having a positive outlook on physical activity. Taking time off or not finishing a workout/race does not mean that you are weak, lazy, or uncommitted. It means that you are practicing a balanced relationship with exercise.

3) Calorie math or stepping onto the locker-room scale after a workout or physical activity become routine.

Another warning sign might be a need to count calories during or after exercise, and both behaviors are likely a sign that you are starting to exercise for only weight and shape reasons. There is more to physical activity than just the traditional health benefits. Exercise should, for the most part, be enjoyable, social, and empowering. As a side note, looking at the scale immediately after exercise can be deceiving since water weight is lost through dehydration. However, dehydration is not a good thing! It can lead to headaches, fatigue, and, in serious cases, could be a life-threatening emergency. Always make sure to hydrate before, during and after physical activity, and consult health care providers when needed.

4) You find yourself only engaging in vigorous physical activity or feel driven to always push yourself past your comfort point.

Balanced, healthy exercise means that you incorporate a variety of activities and that you listen to your body to determine how intensely you want to push yourself. Doing low-impact activities like yoga can be beneficial for both mind and body. Always sticking to one, high intensity routine and not including cross-training can lead to burnout as well as injury. Lastly, if you are pushing yourself to the extreme and feeling pressured to take drastic measures to improve your performance, like using illegal substances, it is definitely time to take a step back reevaluate your relationship with exercise.

Whether you are starting to consider physical activity or have been participating in sports since childhood, I hope you continue to consider your motivations for exercise and make sure your motives support both physical and psychological health. It is never too early or too late to start being physically active or to take some restorative time off.

**Disclaimer: Before starting any new exercise routine, it is important to consult your healthcare provider, and other providers/coaches you may have including physical therapist, mental health professional, and/or strength and conditioning coach.

photo credit: Wasfi Akab via Creative Commons