Is Exercising Always Healthy?

By Sarah Spitz, LMSW

Most people would agree that exercising is good for you. Not only can exercise promote physical health, but it also improves mood, increases energy, decreases stress and can be a source of enjoyment (the list could go on and on).  But is exercise always healthy? And is there such a thing as unhealthy exercise?

I believe that balance is key. All behaviors, even if they are considered healthy, can be harmful if they are taken to the extreme. There is a difference between pushing yourself to get to the gym on a rainy morning because you know you'll feel good in the end, and forcing yourself to go for a run when your knees have been hurting and you're feeling under the weather. If most of your exercise tends to fall into the second category, you may be overexercising. 

Overexercising, also called compulsive or excessive exercising, is when you continue to exercise beyond what is healthy for your body, and when there is the feeling that you must workout at any expense.  For example, some people who struggle with compulsive exercising may skip out on important commitments, or find time in the middle of the night to get in a workout.  As with any behavior, compulsive or excessive exercising does serve a function. It may be in an effort to lose weight or compensate for overeating or binging, or it can also be a method for feeling in control. Overexercising exists on a spectrum, and sometimes occurs in conjunction with an eating disorder or patterns of disordered eating.

When exercise occurs in this context, the many health benefits of exercise begin to decrease. Instead, you may be putting your body at risk for other physical health conditions, as you are pushing your body beyond its limits.  With fatigue and a lowered immune system, you may be more at risk for getting sick. In addition to the physical consequences, overexercising can impact your mental, emotional and social wellbeing. 

Whether you can identify with any of this or not, it is always important to check in with our healthy habits and see if they are serving us. In addition to taking stock of your overall physical and mental health, here are some questions you can ask yourself about your exercise routine:

  • Does exercise leave me exhausted instead of energized?
  • Am I exercising even when I am tired or sick?
  • Do I listen to what my body needs?
  • Is my exercise routine bringing me joy?
  • Is my exercising interfering with other aspects of my life?
  • Is my day ruined if I do not exercise?
  • Does skipping an exercise affect my self-worth?

Sarah Spitz is a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy.  If you would like support with overexercising, disordered eating or finding balance in your life, visit cobbpsychotherapy.com and learn how therapy can help.