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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.

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