When one thinks of addiction, substances, alcohol, and food come to mind. One addiction that is very common but not as commonly talked about is addiction to exercise. It is common knowledge that consistent exercise and movement are key to mental and physical health, longevity, and happiness. But constantly pushing yourself, getting obsessive over workouts, and not allowing your body to rest can be signs you might have an unhealthy relationship with exercise. In a society built on the need for “more,” you can definitely have too much of a good thing, and that includes exercise.

For example, high-intensity workouts have recently increased in popularity — but without moderation these can be damaging to our long-term health. HIIT workouts release cortisol, the same hormone that is released in response to stress exposures. Too much cortisol in the body can cause a decrease in immunity, an increase in storage of fat, and muscle atrophy. Excessive running also comes with its own set of problems — and although it may not flood your body with cortisol, it can be extremely hard on your knees and joints, which can lead to injuries. Exercising too often for too long also causes inflammation in the body that can lead to bloating, weight gain, and a host of other symptoms. Constant overexertion during a workout also puts major stress on our adrenals — and can eventually lead to extreme burnout and exhaustion.

Not only can too much exercise hurt our bodies, there is also a chance it can lead to depression, exhaustion, and after all that effort — diminished results. In all of these instances, incorporating rest, recovery, and mindful movement is crucial to a healthy body.

However, our society and modern life continue to fuel our addiction to a fast-paced, adrenalin-fueled lifestyle, and often preach the adage “no pain, no gain.” In fact, there are so many messages in the media around this ideology that if you don’t leave a workout absolutely exhausted, you can often begin to feel guilty or lazy. It’s very important to recognize this societal programming because it is only once we learn to tune out unhealthy messaging, that we can truly start to tune into our bodies.

So when does exercise become too much, and how can you tell if you might be suffering from exercise addiction? Some common signs that it might be time to reevaluate your relationship with exercise include:

  • Extreme stress from missing a workout
  • Feeling as if one missed workout will destroy your progress
  • Working out despite fatigue and/or injury
  • Inability to sleep
  • Weight gain 
  • Reduced appetite 
  • Increased recovery time
  • Refusing to miss a workout 
  • Putting exercise ahead of work, family, social life, etc.
  • Exercising during extreme weather (smoke, thunderstorms, etc)

If this sounds like you, there’s a host of options available to help you balance out your exercise routine. It’s important to incorporate multiple types of activity into your regime, mix up intense activity with rest days, and equally prioritize daily walking and low-intensity movement.

Although still the minority, the desire for lower-impact workouts is on the rise. Basically, people are realizing that doing boot camp-style classes and HIIT training everyday isn’t sustainable, and are looking to prevent injury or burnout.

It may seem counterintuitive, but a lifestyle full of low-intensity movement can benefit your body and your longevity much more than an hour a day of intense exercise. According to a 2013 study, standing and walking for longer periods of time as opposed to one hour of intense exercise per day improves insulin sensitivity and blood lipid levels. Low-intensity movement can also be easier on your joints and muscles, preventing you from becoming injured and having musculoskeletal issues later in life.

COVID has forced us to get more creative with the way we get our exercise and has allowed us to take a step back and listen to our bodies. One of the most accessible forms of low-intensity workouts is walking. Not only is a long walk good for your mental health, but it is also great for your body. Some of my other favorites are pilates, yoga, and hiking. There are also great online resources available that can be practiced from your own home.

Overall, these forms of exercise are better for reducing your risk of injury, are easier on the body, and encourage mindfulness and the mind-body connection.

If you find yourself pushing your body past what is healthy, or think you suffer from exercise addiction, working with a licensed therapist in your area can be a great resource to help you find a better balance. For more information on exercise addiction and resources for getting help, click here.

Ali Parsons graduated from The University of Washington with a degree in Media & Communications. She is passionate about nutrition, health, and wellness and is currently in the process of becoming a Registered Dietitian. Ali enjoys cooking, running, yoga, hiking and travel!

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