If you Google ‘signs of over-exercising”, sites will say the symptoms are exercising for 2+ hours a day, exercising multiple times throughout the day, skipping social events to stick to your rigid exercise schedule, and physiological symptoms.  In addition to these symptoms, I think there are other behaviors and mindsets that put someone at risk for over-exercising and developing an unhealthy relationship with exercise. Just because you don’t go to the gym three times a day, or run two and half hours every day of the week, or you aren’t skipping a party to exercise, doesn’t mean you are not overdoing it when you work out. Because what I’m talking about goes deeper into exercise behaviors, like why you do it and how you feel if you miss an exercise session.

Exercise and the human body are incredible! I love learning about exercise and the body so much I chose to study it for four years earning my bachelor’s degree in kinesiology– the study of movement. Exercise and movement help keep our bodies healthy. It helps us manage our stress and feel good with the release of endorphins. Many people sleep better when they exercise. Movement keeps our bone strong and our muscles activated. We know there are many benefits to exercise. Our bodies are made to move. But when does exercise become too much for our bodies and unhealthy for our minds?

I am not a psychologist but feel that addressing over-exercising starts with identifying why someone is engaged in over-exercising behaviors. That means asking yourself some challenging questions that can help you dig out the real motive behind wanting to over-exercise. If you find thinking about these questions or the responses feels overwhelming, a psychologist can be very helpful in navigating the causes and solutions.

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Do you exercise in relation to how much you ate during the day or the day before? For example, does eating a piece of cake at a work function lead to you to work out harder and/or longer to burn off those calories?
  • Is your reason for exercising to burn off calories?
  • Do you exercise, even if you have an injury or are sick?
  • Do you find your mind consumed with negative thoughts if you miss an exercise session?
  • Do you feel exhausted for a few hours after your exercise session?
  • Does your self-image or your self-worth depend on your exercise habits?
  • Have you lost your period, or has it become irregular?
  • Do you exercise to manage your weight?

If you find that you can relate to these thoughts or these behaviors describe you, it might be time to evaluate your exercise plan. Your mind and body will be happier if there is a healthy balance with exercise. This is a tricky subject because on one hand we are telling you that exercise can help you manage your weight and keep you healthy and then on the other hand we’re telling you that these could be signs of over-exercising. So, which is it?

Unfortunately, there’s not an exact answer for everyone. There’s no magic number that applies to everyone but there are recommendations and suggestions based on research on what a healthy balance looks like for many individuals. For example, for weight management, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends exercising at a moderate intensity for 30 minutes a day, five days a week. And combining this amount of exercise with healthy eating habits. You become at risk for over-exercise injuries when you start to increase this number too fast and your body is giving you signs to slow down but you don’t.

As I mentioned, it might be helpful to explore your over exercising behaviors with a psychologist but here are some suggestions that can help you start to find a healthier balance with exercise.

  1. If you find you are using exercise alone to manage your weight, start to incorporate healthy eating habits. Research shows that when you combine healthy eating and exercise together, it’s much more effective in managing weight. A meta-analysis published in 2014, found that in the long term, weight management programs that combine exercise with diet can lead to a more sustained weight loss over a year than just diet or exercise alone. It even reports that programs based on exercise alone are less effective than combined programs in both the short and long term. That doesn’t mean you won’t see some positive benefits from managing your weight when you exercise, especially if you are lifting weights but remember that you can’t exercise away all the calories you eat.
  2. If you struggle taking a day off from exercise, know that rest days will help you reach your goals faster. It’s the rest days that allows the muscle to heal, recover, and rebuild. The amount of rest and recovery time you need does varies from person to person but I believe that everyone needs at least one rest day per week. From there, determining rest days and time depends on your training schedule and intensity and listening to your body. Some weeks you may need a little more rest than other weeks. If you find that you are experiencing pain in a localized area, like behind the left knee cap or your right shoulder, you may be overtraining. Systemic overtraining affects the entire body and you may feel worn-down, or a lack of energy, or you can’t perform at your normal standards. These are signs that you need to take some rest days.
  3. Over-exercising can cause you to gain weight, or keep you from losing healthy weight. When the body is exhausted from systemic overtraining, it can cause the body to enter a catabolic state and produce an increased amount of cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone that is secreted by the adrenal cortex in response to stress. It can impede muscular repair, synthesis, and function, decrease other hormone productions, inhibit protein synthesis or accelerate protein breakdown, and reduces the body’s ability to use fat as an energy source. If you find that you aren’t losing weight and you are exercising and maintaining a healthy intake of food, you may be over doing it in the gym.
  4. If your mind struggles letting go a missed exercise session, take some time to analyze these thoughts. Instead of thinking about the negatives of missing an exercise session, take some time to think about the fun you had with your family instead. Or if your hectic schedule got in the way, take some time to analyze your schedule and what you are spending your time doing. Letting go and not over-thinking a missed exercise session is probably the hardest for many of us. So this one will take time.

Exercise is an important element to a healthy lifestyle and typically doesn’t happen unless you plan it into your day. The difference between good planning and developing an unhealthy relationship depends on if guilt and negative feelings are associated with exercise, or if you aren’t allowing your body time to rest, or if there is a blurred line between self-image and exercise.

Personally, I admit I had an unhealthy relationship with exercise and over used it for many years. My eating disorder played into how much I exercise and exercise was another way to feel a sense of control. When I was going through treatment, I had to let go of running and weight lifting completely for some time. It was mentally challenging to go from that much exercise to nothing but it allowed me to not only gain healthy weight but also to spend time exploring who I was without exercise. Resting allowed me to find ways of defining me in ways other than as a runner. It took time, a lot of self-exploration, and using different mindfulness techniques to develop a much healthier relationship with exercise.

A healthy balance with exercise must be something that you explore and you must find your own balance. With a little practice, experimentation, mental exploration, and awareness of your own body, exercise will become something that you enjoy, something that challenges you, and something that brings health and happiness.