Exercise and Your Mental Health
Whether you exercise regularly for the health benefits or to maintain your weight, there is such a thing as too much exercise. Where do you draw the line to stay healthy, both physically and mentally? How much exercise is too much? Do you see yourself the way others do, or has your viewpoint become distorted? How are exercise and mental health related?
The Benefits of Exercise
The Bible states that bodily exercise profits the body (1 Timothy 4:8) and has its place in the life of a believer. The benefits of exercise are numerous.
The physical scale and non-scale benefits include:
- Healthier blood pressure readings
- Improved cholesterol levels
- Reduced body fat percentage
- Decrease in Body Mass Index (BMI) measurement
- Lower scale weight
- Smaller clothes
- Improved circulation
- Lower resting heart rate
- Improved range of motion
- Decreased risk for heart disease, Type II diabetes, and some cancers
- Improved flexibility
- Reduced risk of falls
- Boost in energy
- Improved sleep quality
The mental benefits of exercise are just as important:
- Improved mood
- Reduced anxiety
- Increased ability to handle stress
- Lower chance of developing depression
- Increase in focus and concentration
- Improved self-confidence
- Reduced risk for cognitive impairment
With all the benefits of exercise, we can see why it is critical that we take the activity seriously. Exercise and good health can increase our chances of living longer. In order to fulfill our calling, it is imperative that we keep our bodies (and minds) in good working order.
The official guidelines set from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends for adults to exercise for at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity workouts. If you prefer a more vigorous workout, the recommendation is at least 75 minutes per week. Many people find that working out 30 minutes a day, five days a week is a manageable schedule.
Although the guidelines suggest upping your moderate-intensity workouts to five hours a week (example: one hour, five days a week) or 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity workouts a week, there is a fine line between the benefits from longer moderate-intensity workouts and over-exercising.
How Much Exercise is Too Much?
For many people getting in enough exercise is a struggle. However, there are some who may take working out to the extreme. The average person may get up a little earlier to workout or go to the gym after work. They may take classes a few times a week at the local Pilates studio or club. These people might practice yoga as part of their nightly routine. They make exercise fit into their schedule.
However, there are those exercisers who are extreme in their practice. These people might get up much earlier than others, such as rising at three or four o’clock in the morning, to have enough time to work out or go for a run.
Exercise in any form becomes the priority over the other areas of their life. They may miss social events, family outings, or quality time spent with their spouse in order to stick to the exercise schedule. They make their lives fit around their exercise regimen.
Just like with any addiction the urge to run, lift or workout is strong. It encompasses a need to control. When life becomes too chaotic in one area, over-exercisers may compensate by spending more time on the racetrack or in the gym.
A “normal” exerciser will cut back when they begin to feel sluggish. They may stop training completely if faced with an injury. But over-exercisers cannot stop – the need is too great. Over-exercisers will train even if they are tired, sick, or in pain.
Why would someone place this much importance on exercise? The same chemicals in the brain that cause people to become addicted to substances come into play with exercise as well. The term “runner’s high” is used to explain the surge in chemicals released by neurotransmitters in the brain during a run. The “feel-good” chemical dopamine releases during other activities as well, giving the exerciser a feeling of reward and accomplishment.
Over-Exercise and Mental Health
Over-exercise doesn’t just negatively affect the relationships and schedules of those involved. It can take a toll on your mental health. When exercise becomes extreme, missing a session can feel like withdrawal. Just like the withdrawal symptoms addicts face, over-exercisers are typically left aggravated, depressed, and guilt-ridden when they skip a session.
This compulsive behavior, however, is culturally accepted. Today’s society looks down on those who do not take care of their bodies – who they perceive to be unhealthy and obese – and look favorably on those people who take the time to treat exercise seriously. This is another reason why the fine line between healthy exercise and over-exercise is often blurred.
Over-exercise and mental health are also entwined. Certain mental health disorders can cause a person’s behavior to go to the extreme. Patients with anorexia nervosa or other eating disorders may use over-exercise as an additional tool to control their weight.
Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) is a mental health condition in which a person focuses too much on some aspect of their body, usually a flaw, and will go to extreme measures to conceal or reduce its appearance. When a person with body dysmorphic disorder symptoms catches a glimpse of their reflection, they may only focus on the flaw or defect. They might compare their body to someone else’s, either through social media or from real life.
People with body dysmorphia symptoms may spend long hours trying to change their appearance. Some patients with BDD may view themselves as overweight and unfit when in reality they are bordering on being underweight and too thin. Their perception of themselves is faulty and they cannot see the reality that others see.This can lead the person with BDD to hide out from others and social events. They may spend an excessive amount of money (and time) on diet methods, exercise programs and equipment, and cosmetic surgeries to change their appearance.
It is not uncommon for someone with Body Dysmorphic Disorder symptoms to spend 24 hours a week working out. All the effort it takes to control their appearance through over-exercise can negatively impact their emotions and mental state, resulting in depression and anxiety.
Even bodybuilders can experience BDD, especially in the form of Muscle Dysmorphic Disorder. With this condition, the weightlifter sees himself as weak and small compared to his bodybuilding mentors. This can lead him to train excessively, often resulting in serious injury.
When to Seek Treatment
How can you tell if you are exercising in an unhealthy manner? Your body will give you signs when you are pushing too hard. You may feel tired and have trouble recovering as quickly as you used to. If you compete in sports or train for marathons, then you may notice your personal time getting worse instead of better.
Since you will be unable to maintain your previous performance, injuries are more likely to occur. Over-exercise can also leave you tossing and turning in bed at night, unable to sleep. Depression and mood swings are also common symptoms.
Body Dysmorphic Disorder symptoms include depression and anxiety from comparing your appearance to others, mood swings, and compulsive behavior (like over-exercising or starving) to control your appearance and/or weight.
If you feel that you are experiencing these symptoms, reach out to a mental health care professional. Depending on the severity of the condition, they can offer help in the form of psychotherapy. Through talk therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), you will learn how to get to the root of the compulsive behavior and begin to view yourself in a positive light.
You will learn to truly accept yourself for who God made you to be and place worth in that image. A therapist can show you healthier ways to lose (or maintain) weight without spending extreme amounts of time in the gym. In some cases, they may recommend medication to treat other symptoms from over-exercising such as anti-depressants to combat depression.
Balancing exercise and mental health is possible. Don’t hesitate to ask for help if you need it.
“Keep Climbing”, Courtesy of Bruno Nascimento, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Runners”, Courtesy of Fitsum Admasu, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Workout”, Courtesy of Logan Weaver, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Yoga”, Courtesy of Madison Lavern, Unsplash.com, CC0 License