Are You Exercising Too Much?
In today's society, many people struggle with not being active enough. Getting into the routine of movement is a difficult thing, I totally get it. But I also feel and know there is another side to exercise that no one really discusses. And that's exercising too much.
I understand for the large majority of the population- this isn't an issue. But there's also A LOT of people out there who do exercise too much and that's who I want to talk to today.
Why does exercising too much matter? How do you know if you are exercising too much?
It matters a lot, actually. If you are wondering if you might be overdoing it, that's already a sign that you might be...but let's dig deeper.
Why Does Over Exercising Matter?
Remember when we talked about HPA axis dysfunction when we discussed how to heal disordered eating and digestion, simultaneously? (P.S. If you are wondering more about adrenal fatigue, aka HPA axis dysfunction, its a topic we cover often on the Nourishing Women Podcast).
It's the same idea for over-exercising, too.
Exercise is a form of stress to the body just like getting stuck in a traffic jam or out running a tiger (ya know, if you were just hanging out in the jungle). Stress is stress to the body- it does not know the difference between positive and negative stress when it comes to cortisol output. So a person who is exercising a healthy amount for his or her body, the stress effects of exercising are positive overall- your body can produce the cortisol and go back to baseline, learning how to better effectively deal with stress. But if you are also stressed out in multiple ways- you are putting too much work on your HPA axis. Our bodies can only handle so much- including physical and emotional stressors.
Stress could be from financial stress, personal stress, undereating or obsessing mentally over your eating and exercise habits or body size. Adding too much exercise to this equation will just add to constantly high levels of cortisol your body has to produce. This is the first stage of HPA axis dysfunction or "adrenal fatigue". Eventually, the body is unable to produce enough cortisol, not because the adrenals are fatigued, but because the hormonal cascade is not able to properly function, and this signifies later stages of HPA axis dysfunction.
As a practitioner, I see this all the time in my clients. They have been on and off diets their entire lives and only see exercise only as a means for allowing themselves to eat and therefore force themselves to exercise daily. Eventually, HPA axis dysfunction occurs as well as other negative health consequences including digestion issues like IBS and hypothalamic amenorrhea.
How Do I Know if I am Over-Exercising?
There are many signs you are exercising too much. Signs include:
-Unable to recover quickly from exercises.
-Fatigue for the rest of the day after exercising or feeling extremely lethargic (like you got hit by a bus) the day after intense exercise.
-Increased muscle fatigue and soreness.
-You keep getting injured.
-Tired but too wired to sleep or excessively fatigued all the time.
-You force yourself to workout, even if you desperately do not want to workout.
-Decline in ability to hit a PR or your exercise capabilities continue to decline (like you used to be able to easily run 5 miles and now it feels like you are running with bricks for legs).
-You have a set number of miles you have to run each day or week, no matter what your body is telling you.
-You excessively plan your workouts, and do not allow for rest days or do not take enough rest days.
-You tell your body when it should take rest days versus allowing your body to tell you when to take rest days.
-Taking a rest day, especially an unplanned rest day, gives you anxiety.
-Anxiety when you try to not exercise on vacation or extreme anxiety at the thought of taking a complete break from exercising for a period of time.
-You make excuses for your exercise routine when confronted with questions about your exercise by loved ones or your health practitioner.
-ANY feeling of emotions that are extreme around exercise. Extreme pride or worthiness associated with exercising or ANY guilt or shame when you do not.
-Extreme hunger all the time. Now this is a tricky one- because I often find so many of my clients are undereating, but they see it as normal or even a lot of food. This is not what I am referring to. You may need to work with a dietitian to determine this particular sign.
-Worsening digestive issues.
-Menstrual cycle irregularities or lack of cycle entirely (amenorrhea).
-Loss of sex drive.
-Sick easily or frequently.
-Easily stressed or irritable.
-You start to gain weight when it "seems" like you are doing all the "right things".
-Lack of ability to build muscle.
-You only see exercise in the form of calories you've burnt for the day. You do not move your body simply out of pure enjoyment or you’ve convinced yourself its enjoyable when your body is saying otherwise.
My Personal Story with Over Exercising
Personally, I have struggled with over exercising just as I have struggled in the past with disordered eating.
For years I did Jazzercise for my exercise, particularly in college and the first year or two living in Florida. I loved it, but I got bored doing the same thing all the time. And it wasn't very challenging, which was something I was craving. When we moved from Tampa to Clearwater, I decided to join a hot yoga studio instead of a Jazzercise studio. And I loved it. I was inspired by the instructors and there seemingly-limitedless energy. I thought, finally, I could have a yoga/dancer/whatever body (ahhhh, young Victoria, you still have so far to go). I did very intense cardio sessions in 100 degree heat, at least 5-6 times a week. And then I discovered weight lifting, and loved it too. I kept doing the cardio in a hot yoga studio and started lifting weights three times a week. I was doing a lot of the items listed above, prescribing myself an exercise routine, forcing myself to exercise even when my body was asking for rest, and even doing two-a-days.
One day when I was visiting my sister, she questioned me about my new workout routines. My pride in being able to handle high intensity workouts. My obsession with working out everyday and sometimes twice in one day. We both knew immediately I was over doing it when I got really defensive about it. And then I got really real with myself.
I was over-exercising.
When I realized I was having many of the symptoms above, I took some time to think about my relationship with exercise and realized I was still harboring a lot of emotions around exercise. I had healed my relationship with food, but still had fears around not exercising. I felt if I didn't exercise I would not burn enough calories that day. I realized I had allowed myself to "eat all the foods" but I had used exercise as my "reason" I was now "allowing" myself to eat enough. I realized I was also relying on caffeine so that I could have the energy to exercise in the mornings, and never asked myself if I actually wanted to work out or not. I planned my rest days instead of letting my body tell me when it wants it.
Its thankfully been years since then, and now I have a completely different relationship with exercise. Over the years, I’ve found what works best for me and that’s usually focusing just on moving my body rather than exercise or having any routine around it.
Changing Your Mindset Around Exercise
I urge you to stop thinking about exercise as a way to manipulate your body or a way to burn more calories. Stop thinking that your body hates you, and instead do actions on a daily basis that show your body how much you love it. If needed, take a complete and total break from exercising especially if you have lost your menstrual cycle. Find new ways to relax your mind, give yourself endorphins or deal with your stress levels. When your body has healed, introduce exercise back into your life with a more mindful approach. Ask your body what it wants rather than telling it what it should do. Note: you may need to work with a health care provider if your relationship to exercise is especially complex.
Exercise should give you energy, not take it from you. It's a great way to reduce stress, but it shouldn't be your only coping mechanism for stress in your life. Exercise is known for its health benefits, but you don't have to exercise excessively to get those health benefits. What we often forget about those health benefits, its that its over the span of your entire life, not how often you exercise daily. And the literature supports primarily just living an active lifestyle, not necessarily a specific exercise routine.
Exercise should be part of your self care routine, but it shouldn't be the only form of self care you give yourself. Exercise should be intuitive, not forced. You should be able to take breaks from exercise if that is what your body is asking. Exercise should add happiness to your life, not take away from it.
Do you need help determining if you are exercising too much?
Realistically, if you are reading this and questioning if you are exercising too much...you very likely are. No worries, we are here to support you at Nourishing Minds Nutrition. If you have any of the above signs of over exercising and you have health issues like possible adrenal fatigue, hormonal imbalance or lack of menstrual cycle, worsening digestive issues, you are gaining weight or losing weight rapidly without trying (both can occur depending on the person) I encourage you to reach out for help.
Tell me: How do you feel about your current exercise routine?