How To Build A Healthy Relationship With Exercise And Not Overdo It

Regular exercise is a key component of healthy living. It keeps you fit, increases your energy, builds muscle mass, and much more. Over time, it may improve mental well-being, reduce stress and anxiety, and boost your productivity, says the Cleveland Clinic. While there's no doubt that physical activity benefits the mind and body, it can also turn against you. Too much exercise may lead to mood problems, injuries, fatigue, and anxiety (per MedlinePlus).

Remember the old saying, "More isn't always better?" As it turns out, it's possible to become addicted to exercise and put your health at risk. This problem affects about 9% of fitness attendees, 4% of teen athletes, and 21% of people with eating disorders, reports a 2018 review featured in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions. Generally, it's more common among those with specific personality traits, such as self-oriented perfectionism and a tendency toward negative feelings like self-doubt.

If you're addicted to exercise, you may find yourself hitting the gym even when you're sick or injured. This kind of behavior often goes hand in hand with body dissatisfaction and eating disorders, notes the above review. Luckily, it's never too late to build a healthy relationship with exercise and strike a balance when it comes to your workouts. For starters, try the strategies below. 

Maintain healthy and realistic goals

Some people start exercising to build mass and strength or get leaner. Others simply want to enjoy better health and keep fit. Remember why you started in the first place and then think about where you're at right now. 

During this process, you may realize that you've lost sight of your goals at some point. For example, you may have started a fitness routine to get healthier, but you began to exercise excessively as a coping mechanism. "When I couldn't deal well with emotions or things that were going on, I could always control exercise and try to change what people saw on the outside because that was always a good way for me to hide what was going on inside. So I started exercising — a lot," Erin Bahadur, a Chicago-based personal trainer, told Northwestern University.

Physical activity can make it easier to deal with stress. The problem is using exercise as a means to "escape" one's responsibilities, explains Northwestern University. Healthline points out that it is also problematic to use exercise as a way to punish oneself or to view it solely as a way to burn calories or acquire an impossible body shape. That's why it's important to set healthy and realistic fitness goals and then create a healthy workout routine.   

Get mental health treatment

GoodTherapy notes that therapy and support groups can help people build healthy relationships with exercise. Not only that, but therapy may also help address any underlying problems that have led to the addiction. Exercise addiction is often triggered by anxiety, depression, and emotional stress, according to a 2018 study. As discussed earlier, some people resort to exercise to cope with negative feelings. This can become a problem if you ignore your feelings instead of addressing them.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses may require ongoing treatment, such as medications and psychotherapy, states the American Psychiatric Association (via Regular exercise may help to some extent, but it cannot replace medical intervention. What's more, excessive exercise can lead to injuries, which may cause or worsen psychological distress. The truth is, you cannot run away from your feelings and problems. No amount of exercise can make those issues go away. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website

Try other activities

Try to cut back on exercise (per Healthline). When you are tempted to exercise for the wrong reasons, distract yourself with other activities. Healthline points out that this could be as simple as doing the dishes, watching a movie, calling a friend, or meditating. Alternatively, try adopting a new hobby. This can reduce stress, improve mental health, and lift your mood, notes Utah State University. Plus, you'll have the chance to meet like-minded people, make friends, and develop your skills.

This doesn't mean that you need to give up on your workouts and reinvent yourself. The key is to find a balance between exercise and daily life. If, say, you normally hit the gym six times a week, cut back to four weekly workouts and fill your time with something new, such as meditation. You may also volunteer at a local animal shelter, get involved in a project, or learn a new language.