As part of our society’s proclaimed “war against obesity,” we are constantly flooded with advertisements and campaigns that proclaim the many health benefits of regular exercise. From Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign, to the rising popularity of the Fitbit, we are bombarded with the message that “more exercise is better.” But what happens when your relationship with exercise is actually harming your mental and physical health? The following are three signs that you may have developed an unhealthy relationship with exercise.
1. You frequently cancel plans with friends or family in order to exercise.
If you notice yourself backing out of plans in order to adhere to your exercise routine, it might be time to revaluate your relationship with the gym. Jessica Corbin, fitness expert, commented on this when she stated, “You know you are a bit obsessed with fitness if the other vital aspects of life, including family, friends, work, community and having fun always take a back seat to your workouts.” If you are truly exercising to be healthier, it is important to look at all of the other factors that are implicated in improving one’s health. Numerous studies have shown that people who have fulfilling relationships with loved ones live longer, have fewer health problems, and are happier. Research even suggests that having weak social ties may cause greater health problems than physical inactivity. For instance, “one study, which examined data from more than 309,000 people, found that lack of strong relationships increased the risk of premature death from all causes by 50% — an effect on mortality risk roughly comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, and greater than obesity and physical inactivity.” At the end of your life, you likely will not be reflecting on the spin classes that you attended. Social connections are part of what makes life worth living, and if you are sacrificing them to adhere to a rigid exercise routine, you may have a problematic relationship with exercise.
2. You exercise in order to “compensate” for what you have eaten.
“I totally earned this cupcake after that workout.” We’ve all heard people make these kinds of statements. Exercising in order to “compensate” for eating something is an unhealthy mindset. Further, set point theory holds that, “your body is biologically and genetically determined to weigh within a certain weight range.” If you are eating according to your hunger cues and primarily eating for non-emotional reasons, your weight will stabilize at your set point. The idea that you can “control” your weight through exercise is a false illusion because there are powerful biological and genetic factors that influence your weight. Further, every food eaten in moderation can be part of a healthy diet. If you work to view all food as neutral and without a moral equivalent, there is never a need to “compensate” for having eaten something.
3. You exercise despite fatigue, illness, or injuries.
Many of the popular “fitspiration” images and quotes seem to glorify the idea of taxing your body to the extreme. For instance, a quick Google image search of “fitspiration,” yields a picture of a woman exercising with the caption, “Don’t quit. You’re already in pain. You’re already hurt. Get a reward from it.” However, there is nothing admirable about exercising when you are sick, injured, or physically and mentally exhausted. Jonathan Ross, a health and fitness expert, discussed the importance of rest when he stated, “Proper recovery is as important as proper training.” On the topic of how to tell if you should take a day off from exercise, Ross stated, “When you really feel like one. This is your brain’s way of telling you that your body needs to rest. Ignore it at your own risk.” In addition, rest is essential to any workout routine because this is when your body repairs tissue and muscle glycogen stores are replenished. Further, when you do not allow your body adequate rest between workouts, you increase your risk of injury, decrease performance, and could start to feel a negative impact on your mood.
While there are many fantastic health benefits of exercise, when done compulsively or in excess, exercise can become mentally and physically unhealthy. According to an article by The Center for Change, compulsive exercise can also “feed or fuel other related obsessive-compulsive disorders including anorexia, bulimia, and related disorders of eating and distorted body image.” Even if your compulsive exercise does not contribute to an eating disorder, I think we can all agree that canceling plans with friends because you are a slave to the treadmill, running with an injured knee, or being terrified of taking a rest day, is not mentally healthy.
So how can you find balance with exercise in a fitness-obsessed world? There is a relativity new approach called “intuitive exercise,” which entails listening to what your body is craving in terms of movement. Davida Kugelmass, a wellness blogger, exemplified this when she stated,
I ask you to take the time to listen to your body, and no I’m not talking about that nagging voice that tells you to stick to your workout plan or else you’ll get fat. But to really listen to your intuition. You’d be surprised how often your body will tell you to move, but when it’s telling you to rest, rest.