Participation in regular physical activity is beneficial to both body and mind. It supports our body to grow stronger and our brain to work better. It relieves stress and anxiety and helps improve mood, concentration and memory.
However, when exercise becomes an obligation and you are experiencing negative consequences which put strain on your mind and body, there is a chance that you are exercising excessively, which can be a problem in itself, as over-exercising can bring serious negative impacts on health.
Why does it matter?
Excessive exercise affects both our physical and mental health. It could lead to potential injuries, due to overusing muscles or worsening previous injuries as your body is unable to recover fully. This could affect exercise performance in the longer term, especially among youth during this stage of physical development. Excessive exercise can also affect girls’ menstruation, as it directly and indirectly impacts hormonal changes in our bodies.
It can influence how you perceive your body, your self-esteem and it can be mentally taxing when our minds are preoccupied with the thoughts related to exercise. Excessive exercising can contribute to guilty feelings, or feelings of irritation and being on edge when you are not exercising. It also affects our daily lives and social relationship as we prioritise exercise over other matters.
Although it is not classified as a diagnosable mental health condition, over-exercising is often associated with multiple mental health conditions. Studies show that there is a link between excessive exercise, body dysmorphic disorder and eating disorders. It may also lead to or exacerbate existing mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and addiction.
Signs of excessive exercise
You may notice some of the following signs:
- Feeling prolonged muscle soreness and stiffness
- Feeling fatigued and tired, preventing you to maintain daily activities
- Feeling guilty for not exercising
- Constantly feeling the urge to exercise
- Finding your mind preoccupied with exercise and body image
- Using exercise as a key way to distract yourself from stress and anxiety
- Lower performance
- Unrealistically comparing yourself with others
- Often prioritising exercise over necessary tasks, social interactions and other urgent matters
Exercise is excessive and becomes a problem when it starts to affect your daily life and social relationships, or when it no longer brings you the benefits as originally intended. Reaching out to people you trust or seeking professional help can be useful.
What is the recommended amount of physical activity?
According to the World Health Organisation:
- Youth (aged 5-17) are recommended to do at least an hour of moderate to vigorous level of exercise per day. Adults are advised to undertake 150–300 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75–150 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity per week.
- Moderate level of physical activity – you can still talk, but you can’t sing, such as brisk walking and dancing
- Vigorous level of physical activity – you can only say a few words without stopping to catch a breath, such as running, hiking uphills, and jumping ropes
How can I take care of myself?
- Schedule rest days. Rest days are essential for your body to recover from exercising and strained muscles. It also lets you clear your mind from exercise and focus on other duties and work.
- Stick to an exercise schedule. Plan an exercise schedule that includes both active days and rest days.
- Take a break from exercise if you don’t feel like exercising. It is okay to take a break and let yourself recover from the accumulated stress from exercise – it can benefit you in the long run for your body and mind as they have time to recover to their optimal state.
- A healthy lifestyle is also crucial for your well-being as a whole. A healthy diet, sufficient rest and sleep also contribute to your physical and mental health. Learn more about maintaining a healthy lifestyle for your physical and mental well-being here.
- Talk to people you trust about your concerns. If you have concerns or struggle with over-exercising, talk to your friends, coach, teammates, or a family member you trust to see if alternatives are available. Talking to others is also a way to organise your thoughts and feelings.
- Engage in other activities. Engaging in other enjoyable activities can help focus on something else. If you find your mind is constantly occupied with exercise and related matters, try to immerse yourself in other enjoyable activities and enjoy the feeling that the new activity brings,
How friends and family can support
- Let them know you are worried and are there for them. If your loved ones show signs of excessive exercise that worry you, let them know that you care and are there to support and listen to them. Let them know that they are not alone.
- Acknowledge and validate their feelings and emotions. Different people hold different perspectives on things, and it is important to remember that all feelings and emotions are valid to their experiences. Avoid dismissing their worries and concerns, and try to understand their perspective.
- Don’t make assumptions. Excessive exercise can result from a mix of factors, don’t make assumptions about what drives them to exercise. Listening to them and understanding their perspective can encourage them to share more comfortably.
- Help them find useful information. Useful information such as maintaining overall wellbeing can encourage them to carry out healthy behaviours and avoid information that promotes unhealthy habits. It is also a way to show them that you care and are there to support them.
- Engage them in other activities. Spend time and engage in other enjoyable activities together, such as watching movies, online streaming, chatting and playing games.
Maintaining a healthy exercise habit can positively impact your life, both physically, mentally and socially – it is supposed to bring joy and relieve stress while keeping you physically healthy.
Trott, M., Yang, L., Jackson, S. E., Firth, J., Gillvray, C., Stubbs, B., & Smith, L. (2020). Prevalence and correlates of exercise addiction in the presence vs. absence of indicated eating disorders. Frontiers in Sports and Active Living. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fspor.2020.00084/full
World Health Organisation. (2020). WHO Guidelines on Physical Activities and Sedentary Behaviour. https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/337001/9789240014886-eng.pdf.