January 2017

Too Much of a Good Thing: Why over-exercising gets you nowhere

Author: Linda S. Hopkins

Fatty, fatty, two-by-four, can’t get through the kitchen door.” My cheeks still burn when I recall the humiliating chant that set me on the path of shame. I spent my childhood despising my chubby cheeks, jiggly arms and rounded belly. Always one of the last to be chosen for the relay team, I came to think of myself as awkward and uncoordinated. While most students looked forward to playground time, I often faked a stomachache to avoid it.
By fifth grade, I was so self-conscious I began sneaking into my mom’s bureau drawer and wearing one of her Playtex girdles under my school clothes. At the same time, I began experimenting with ways to lose weight, throwing away my lunch so Mama wouldn’t know I hadn’t eaten. Through fad diets and deprivation, I managed to slim down in my teens, but ballooned up again in college, where the three major food groups were pizza, popcorn and beer, and where exercise was playing pinball machines at the local nightclub.

What I learned the hard way
I was in my early 20s when I discovered the magic of exercise. I fell in love with a man who had the patience to teach me tennis. We moved to Hilton Head Island, where we also rode bicycles, took brisk walks on the beach and spent many hours canoeing. I began thinking of myself as an athlete and lost 20 pounds without even trying.

Then came my 30s, when my metabolism slowed down just enough to cause the scale to creep up by five pounds or so. What did I do? I upped the exercise, working out anywhere from four to six hours a day, hopping from one activity to the next: tennis, biking, rollerblading, walking, canoeing, aerobics classes and home fitness videos. Exercise became my full-time occupation, and by all outward appearances, I was the picture of health.
The more I worked out, the more obsessed I became, and the hungrier and more frustrated, too. I began to calculate how much exercise I needed to justify my meals and get rid of the excess calories I was consuming. I lived in mortal fear of the scale, and like a carnival fun house, every mirror reflected a distorted image of a fat little girl I once knew.

Meanwhile, I rationalized my behavior, trading the mockery of the past for the glorification of thinness…until I got sick. I spent over a year schlepping from one doctor to another, trying to figure out why I had recurring strep throat and could barely hold my eyes open. Despite struggling to keep my head up at the dinner table, I was still riding my bicycle 20 miles every day, playing tennis and going to the gym—all under the guise of health and fitness.

A diagnosis of mononucleosis snapped me to attention. Once I knew what was wrong, I had to face the truth: I had been punishing my body with too much exercise. The treatment required bed rest, good nutrition and lots of fluids.

After a long recovery period, I returned to a more moderate exercise schedule that has allowed me to achieve the result I was after all along. Today, I eat normally, exercise reasonably and, to my surprise and delight, feel great and like what I see in the mirror. While working out is vital to my health and happiness, it’s a fraction of my day, and I’m pretty sure I will never look back on life and wish I had spent more time exercising.
What I know now that I didn’t know then

Inspired by my personal struggles with weight and body image, I went on to study nutrition, fitness. Now I understand the science behind what I experienced and what I see happening to many of my fitness obsessed friends. Over-exercising is like spinning our wheels backwards. Here’s why.

When we exercise, the adrenal gland releases cortisol, a natural response to physical and mental stress. The body doesn’t know if we are riding a bicycle, running from a grizzly bear or fighting rush hour traffic. When we over-exercise, the excess cortisol release negates the benefits by weakening our joints, increasing our risk of osteoporosis, and causing an increase in belly fat—the opposite of what we hope to get in return for all that sweat equity.

The most common cause of excess cortisol release is lack of rest. Strength training and intense aerobic activity also lead to microscopic tearing in the muscle fibers, and the muscles cannot heal and grow stronger without proper rest. This is a major pitfall for beginning bodybuilders who tend to overdo it at the gym and for women who falsely believe that more is better. One way too much exercise can backfire is by putting us at increased risk for injury due to muscle fatigue, which ultimately translates into less gym time and a less fit body.

Beyond the negative physical side-effects, workout enthusiasts who overdo it are more prone to suffer from irritability, anxiety and depression—all related to an unhealthy hormone imbalance due to excess cortisol release. Another troubling symptom is the weakening of the immune system, leaving us more susceptible to illness.

While it might seem counterintuitive to think that exercise can be harmful, if you are trapped in a fitness routine that is throwing your life out of balance, it is a vicious and dangerous cycle, masquerading as a healthy habit. I urge you to grant yourself permission to slow down and seek other sources of purpose and joy as well as alternate pathways to good health. Because too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.

Former fat girl Linda S. Hopkins is a freelance writer, exercise enthusiast and former weight-loss coach. The information presented is not a substitute for medical advice. Before beginning any exercise program, please consult your healthcare provider.

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