Regular physical exercise is an important component of overall health, not just for our bodies, but also for our brains. Many people notice that, when they start having a hard time managing anxiety and depression, it’s because they haven’t been working out and are missing the endorphins that exercise provides.
That being said, it’s also possible to experience the exact opposite, where you’re exercising too frequently, to the extent that your physical and mental health start to suffer.
It’s important to strike a balance when it comes to exercise — it’s a helpful tool for managing depression and anxiety, but, like many tools, it can definitely be used in excess and become a hindrance.
How Excessive Exercise Affects Our Mental Health
Exercise affects mental health in a variety of ways, including the following:
Endorphin Production Leads to Dependence
Regular exercise helps with the production of endorphins, chemicals associated with a positive mood. However, it’s also possible to get attached to endorphins produced by exercise and develop a dependence on what was once very good for us.
Psychologists have found that exercise can become a compulsive behavior, something that people feel a powerful need to do.
People who are “addicted” to exercise may find themselves skipping other commitments or feeling anxious or distressed if they can’t exercise as they’d originally planned.
Over-Exercising Contributes to Chronic Stress
For many people, exercise is a great form of stress relief. However, if you’re exercising frequently and not giving your body a sufficient amount of time to rest and recover, you could be inadvertently creating more stress.
Chronic stress can lead to severe anxiety since the body is in a near-constant “fight or flight” state. When the body is chronically stressed, all other systems — including digestion — cease to function as efficiently as they should. Poor digestion is often linked to mental health issues because the majority of the body’s serotonin (a neurotransmitter that regulates mood) is produced in the gastrointestinal tract.
Compulsive Exercise is Difficult to Identify
Compulsive exercise can be tricky to spot and deal with since exercising is considered a socially acceptable thing to do, and people who are dedicated to their workouts are often lauded for their discipline.
Because many people who over-exercise get praised for doing so, it can be hard to look past the positive feelings that accompany that praise and notice the signs that their physical and mental health is suffering.
Signs You’re Over-Exercising
Compulsive exercise may be difficult to spot, but it’s not impossible.
If you think that you or someone you know is over-exercising and struggling with a more serious mental health issue, consider whether or not the following factors are present:
You’re feeling disinterested in your workouts but feel as though you can’t take a break
You’re constantly feeling fatigued and/or having trouble sleeping at night
You’ve lost your appetite
You’ve gained weight despite eating a healthy, balanced diet
Your immune system has weakened and you’re getting sick more often
Your resting heart rate has increased
You’re experiencing mood swings
You’re always sore and you feel like you’re recovering from your workouts
How to Stop Over-Exercising
If you or someone you know has a problem with over-exercising, it can be hard to change your mindset and give your body a break. These tips can be helpful when you’re trying to scale back your workouts to improve your mental and physical health:
Working with a therapist to figure out healthy ways to manage stress and keep your mental health in check
Scheduling other appointments during your normal workout time — getting a massage, meeting up with a friend, or running errands
Replacing intense workouts with gentle forms of movement like yoga
Calling a friend and having them hold you accountable to your break
If you’re feeling anxious or depressed and are over-exercising to cope, you could actually be doing more harm than good. Keep these tips in mind and consider taking a break to relieve your symptoms and start feeling more like yourself.