Can You Really Exercise Too Much?

The answer is, yes you can!

Of course, that is not all I have to say on this subject, or we would not have a blog post; let me explain! As someone in recovery from an eating disorder as well as mental health issues, I have found a new profound love of exercise. The activity I once despised is the activity I have found joy in. However, I despised it because I was utilizing exercise incorrectly in my life.

I have been in recovery from Binge Eating Disorder for just over 2 years now. Whenever I say “Binge Eating Disorder”, I generally get one of two reactions. The first one being that they have no idea what the hell I am even talking about or I get the whole “oh so It’s like bulimia”. No, it is not. They are two totally different things. One binge and purges to lose excess weight, and the other simply binges…that’s it. Believe me, I have tried to purge before and after trying for 2 hours on my bathroom floor in an attempt to control my eating disorder and my compulsive eating once and for all I could not make my body does it; no matter how many times I stuck my hand down my throat or even punched myself in the stomach I could not seem to make my body throw up at will (yeah, those were some dark times).

The one thing that I did do prior to recovery in an attempt to control my eating disorder was to diet and exercise. With binge eating disorder you often gain a lot of weight and because of the overeating you feel guilty, and because you feel guilty for months of binging, you eventually try in a vain attempt to recover from the disorder you have by selecting another one; in my case, it would often be anorexia. Of course, because I was a binge eater, the anorexia symptoms often would not last long. I could go maybe a few weeks with eating barely anything, but then my stress and anxiety would flare up and I would simply say “fuck it”. Back on the binging wagon, I went.

“Overexercising can lead to an unbalanced relationship with food, nutrition, wellness, and can lead to eating disorders. ”

With binge eaters, prior to recovery we often try to arrest our disorder and urges to significantly overeat through crash diets (or trying not to eat at all as I said) and then overexercise. This would often mean going to workout for 4 hours per day for scheduled sessions, not counting the fact that if I did slip up and eat (God forbid it) I would have to now go biking 10 miles and do another hour of strength training. It kept pushing me back and forth between active relapse in my eating disorder and starvation/exhaustion; my relationship was food was dysfunctional to say the least, and exercise was my punishment for being a bad person.

So why is overexercising bad for us? 

Take a look at the following questions:

  • Am I exercising just to burn calories?

  • Is exercise making my body weaker rather than stronger?

  • Do I become moody if I exercise less?

  • Is working out more important to me than my family and friends, school or work?

  • Do I continue to exercise even when I have an injury?

  • Have friends or family expressed concern about how much I am working out?

if you answered “Yes” to any of these questions, you may want to look into possible professional assistance. No shame, as I know I answered “Yes” to at least four of them for some part of my life; truth be told I catch myself having flare-ups of some of these to this day from time to time. So what would some of over exercising consequences be, exactly?:

Dysfunctional relationships with food

If you have not caught on yet, overexercising can lead to an unbalanced relationship with food, nutrition, wellness, and can lead to eating disorders. By exercising 4-5 hours per day at one point, in an attempt to stop my eating disorder ironically, I ultimately enhanced it. It stressed me out between overexercising and not losing as much weight as I thought that I would just throw it all in and binge for months after. This led me to gain any weight I lost back plus some more.

Resentment of Exercise

This point leads into the original point above. If you over-exercise and use fitness as a punishment rather than a positive prosocial activity and coping skill, you will learn to hate it and avoid it at any and all costs sending you back to a life of imbalanced living.

Poor Self Esteem

Do you see how a lot of these tie into one another? Eating disorders most often come with body image issues or self-worth issues; overall, it just comes with the territory. When you have self-image issues and you are overexercising as a means to control your eating disorder and/or weight, what happens is that over time the scale does not move as fast as you would like. You want to see yourself thin, ripped, or jacked and yet you still look the same. Of course you do, because it has only been about 4 weeks, but in our dysfunctional way of thinking we see this as we should have been looking more aesthetic by now; “what is even the point?” you ask yourself, you give up, you self pity, and your self- esteem is now in the toilet.

Increased risk of serious injury

It kind of goes without saying, if you lift something that is too heavy you might get hurt. Unfortunately overexercising is not just about time; it is also about how intense you are doing. You can go on a 3-hour hike and likely be okay. However, if you are lifting 300 lb weights and you know damn well that you are only able to do 100lbs…maybe…then you are sustainable to injury. Also for those who are significantly overweight or obese as a result of Binge Eating Disorder, you can cause injury to yourself much easier through overexercising simply by running. This can cause knee damage, broken bones, or other internal injuries.

Relationship Issues

If you are at the gym more than with your girlfriend, boyfriend, mother, father, etc. then you might have some social issues as well. If you are in this constant mode of working out and you are all about fitness, what else do you bring to the table? What else do you like to do? Are you a good friend? Are you being a good significant other? If you are one of those “fuck everybody, I’mma do me” people, then this is fine. However, just know that you might not get invited to any family functions any time soon.

But you workout now, so is exercise really bad?

Did you not read this blog all the way through? (Sigh)… yes, I work out now. In fact, as a therapist, I have found fitness to be one of the greatest coping skills, prosocial activities, and life enhancers for those struggling with mental health and substance use disorders. It has transformed my life drastically in the last two years. However, much like a dysfunctional relationship with someone you want to work on, I needed to change my mindset and my actions. Today, I can work out for an hour or two and feel satisfied. I can miss a workout from time to time and not have it be life or death. I can eat a Kit Kat and only have one without it having to be a dilemma of “okay, do I go work it off now or do I have to eat 4 of them?”. It sounds cliche but it is all about balance; things are cliche because they work.

Justin Gillespie is a recovery coach with Workit Health. He has a passion for finding alternative treatments for clients that are evidence-based. He has utilized these alternative interventions with many of his patients and speaks passionately about the balance of fitness, mental health and substance use disorder recovery in other ventures outside of Workit. Justin has his own journey in recovery from Binge Eating Disorder as well as several other co-occurring disorders and uses fitness as well as several other alternative methods to continue his long-term recovery.

Running to Recovery: How Fitness Helped Me Heal

Fitness isn’t just about looking good — it can lead to long-lasting mental health benefits. One member of the Workit team shares his personal experience with exercise in recovery from binge eating disorder.

Fitness is often something we think about as a means to get healthy; by “get healthy” we often think of this as losing weight, increasing strength, gaining muscle, and toning up. These can all be very healthy things for your physical health, however the mental health benefits of fitness and exercise are far too often overlooked or passed over like an afterthought.

For years I fought and battled binge eating disorder, an eating disorder that involves ingesting severely large quantities of food to the point of discomfort on a regular basis, as well as several other mental health issues. I battled my rapid increased weight the best way I knew how: intermittent fasting, at times starvation, and overexercising (yes, exercise can be unhealthy as well).

Boost Your Brain Chemicals With Exercise

Several years ago I discovered what exactly binge eating disorder was. The traits and qualities of it were very similar to substance use disorders. After several tries at recovery with support groups and therapy, my knowledge started to click and I started applying these skills. I learned to live a balanced life with fitness and discovered that I was using exercise as a punishment for gaining weight, which led me to despise it.  When I learned that I could actually work out for 30 minutes to one hour per day, five to six times per week, versus the four to five hours per day, seven days per week that I was doing it truly changed my life. It really made me fall in love with fitness and love/appreciate myself.

I knew that exercise has great benefits for your mental health, if you apply it in a healthy manner. I researched exercise while in school to become a therapist, seeking alternative methods to assist others with mental health and addiction. It’s not too surprising that I ended up coming to Workit Health. However, because I was still using fitness as a punishment during that time, I really only knew that it could be a fun activity for you if you enjoyed it. I did not realize that it could be a major intervention that could truly enhance your life.

As I continued my research on fitness, I started using it on my clients in various mental health settings. Prior to Workit, I have worked for inpatient treatment centers and IOP programs for substance use disorders (community-based settings for people had a mental health or substance use disorder diagnosis). While implementing regular fitness into their sessions as well as their daily life, the mass majority of my clients reported an improvement to their quality of life and over half of these clients had longer-term success. The majority of these clients also began to speak much kinder of themselves.

The Science Behind Sweating It Out

Throughout our day our bodies are releasing endorphins, a group of hormones secreted within the brain and nervous system and having a number of physiological functions. Endorphins activate the body’s opiate receptors which makes us feel good or stable; however, they are released in small amounts so you do not feel “high” but rather stable. There are two types of endorphins: dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine causes you to feel more alert while serotonin assists with you not falling asleep; the body releases these two chemicals essentially to keep you awake and continuing to perform basic tasks such as cleaning, bathing, dressing, and walking from Point A to Point B. When we work out we can often feel a “Runner’s High”, where we feel euphoric and more than just stable.

“Implementing exercise into your everyday life in recovery not only assists with increasing positive prosocial activities and coping skills but also begins to repair your body from the harmful effects of substance use.”

When we are struggling with substance use disorders or mental health disorders, our bodies cannot naturally produce endorphins like they once did and therefore we often feel tired, sluggish, or even sick (especially in the first few weeks of recovery). Implementing exercise into your everyday life in recovery not only assists with increasing positive prosocial activities and coping skills but also begins to repair your body from the harmful effects of substance use. Certain mental health diagnoses can also mean that production of endorphins may be halted as well, which can create a double-edged sword for those recovering. Therefore, production of these endorphins can be vital.  To sum this part up, think of endorphins as our “feel good” hormones; if we do not have them, then we do not feel so great.

Making Exercise A Healthy Habit

In order to make these a part of your life, there are four things that I have personally identified to make this a healthy BALANCED habit.

  1. Pick what you like

    There is no sense in doing something if you hate it, so why start? I’m sure there is something you can do that is active that you enjoy and other things that you cannot stand. For instance, I cannot stand running. It has taken me several years to jog a mile, which if I must say I am very proud of; however, if that is where my fitness journey was going to begin especially for increasing my happiness you can forget about it. I did find that I liked walking and going to the park to workout. Something about being outside made it more fun for me. To this day, I have a backpack that I carry with me with resistance tubes, exercise dice, and cones that I can use at any park if I decide “you know, today I do not feel like being inside”.  I also love learning about boxing and MMA as part of my workouts. If that is not your thing, do not do it but find something you love.

  2. Schedule it

    Make time for yourself. Fitness can be just like any other appointment you have. Put it on your calendar and stick to it. Make it a commitment.  I would also encourage you to do this with any other self-care tasks for yourself. It sounds silly to schedule self-care, but it really works especially if you were like me and not in the habit of doing it to begin with.

  3. Focus on the “non-scale victories”

    This one is more so for those like me who struggle with eating issues, but the same principles apply,. Focus on the mental health benefits you get from fitness, and in turn the physical benefits will follow along easily.

  4. “Workit” everyday…but balance it out

    Like any other skill, balance is key. As said before, I would overexercise all of the time and stress myself out trying to fit workouts in. Many times I would over exercise for weeks and then give up on it as I grew resentful of it. Giving myself balance and a break allows me to appreciate and miss fitness. Our bodies with exercise are similar to drug use as well. While exercise is a healthy alternative that can increase your moods with biological benefits, it can also make our bodies used to it much like our bodies got used to drug use. Over time, you will need to exercise more and more to get the same effects as you once did as your body is producing less endorphins again as it believes you do not need them. Thankfully our bodies begin production on them a lot faster when we stop exercising than we do when we are getting sober, so those rest days can be a day or two and you are ready to lace up those running shoes again in no time.

Justin Gillespie, LLMSW is a recovery coach with Workit Health. He has a passion for finding alternative treatments for clients that are evidence-based. He has utilized these alternative interventions with many of his patients and speaks passionately about the balance of fitness, mental health and substance use disorder recovery in other ventures outside of Workit. Justin has his own journey in recovery from an eating disorder as well as several other co-occurring disorders and uses fitness as well as several other alternative methods to continue his long-term recovery.