Written by Sarah Liz King
Nutrition and exercise go hand in hand. Both have positive impacts not only on our physical health, but mental and social health too. But what happens when exercise becomes excessive? Compulsive? An obsession? Or when you aren’t providing your body with enough fuel or the right types of food for the exercise you are doing?
This is something I come across in clinic quite often, working with clients who have a negative relationship with both food and exercise. Unfortunately, there is a lot of advice (and not great advice might I add) about how to exercise for weight loss, but little on how to exercise if you need to gain weight, or what to do when your physical activity levels and nutritional intake aren’t balanced. Excessive, unhealthy levels exercise habits can have serious physical consequences and expert advice should always be sought from your Doctor, Dietitian and Exercise Physiologist to create an individualised treatment plan.
Sarah is a wonderful friend and old colleague of mine who is an Exercise Physiologist, Personal Trainer, Health Coach and Eating Disorder Recovery Counsellor. She runs her own business specialising in women’s health and disordered eating so I couldn’t think of a more qualified person to collaborate with on this topic. We will hopefully be able to answer some of the most common questions we get asked about overcoming unhealthy exercise and disordered eating.
What is a healthy level of exercise?
A healthy level of exercise is the amount we enjoy doing, which adds to, instead of subtracts from our physical, mental, social and emotional health. Although everyone is different, engaging in some sort of movement for 30 minutes a day is enough to elicit positive benefits for your heart, body, and mind. This could be incidental activity such as walking to the shops, or something more structured like social sport, an exercise class, stretching or yoga.
It’s also helpful to know that our energy levels will fluctuate from day to day, so you might need to adjust your plans or take a day off to honour your health without guilt.
How do I know if I’m over-exercising?
Traditional signs and symptoms of over-exercising include:
Fatigue - the kind you feel you can’t shake
Changes in mood such as depression, anxiety or irritability
Decrease in strength, or performance of your workouts
Decreased interest or motivation to exercise
Changes in weight
Elevated resting heart rate
These are all objective measures, but it’s also important to ask yourself some subjective questions such as:
Does exercise take priority over friends, family, study, career or other areas of my life?
Do I only allow myself to eat if I’ve exercised a certain amount?
Do I force myself to exercise when sick or injured?
Do my workouts make me feel tired and/or weak instead of re-energised?
Do I exercise to avoid certain situations or emotions?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then you might be over-exercising too. If you find yourself in this situation, take some time to rest and instead work on your mindset towards movement, which should be done for pleasure and joy, as well as for health reasons.
What are some of the common consequences of over-exercise?
Pushing yourself too hard for too long can have several consequences. Firstly, you increase your risk of injury because your muscles and bones don’t have adequate time to rest and recover. This may be due to the frequency of your exercise, or inadequate nutrition.
In addition, over-exercising weakens your immune system so you may catch more colds, flus, or other infections, and find it takes you longer to get over them. See our post on eating to "boost" your immunity for more on this topic. It can also disrupt our hormonal balance, which in females might lead to a loss of our menstrual cycle, and in men can lower testosterone levels.
However, the most apparent impact may be your mood. You might lose your temper more easily, experience irritability, have a ‘tired but wired’ feeling, or just feel depressed. These could all be signs that your body isn’t coping with the amount of physical stress (aka exercise) you’re putting it under. Being under fuelled is also a fast-track to negative mood or feeling 'hangry', check out our tips for eating for a good mood.
Should I just stop exercising all together?
For those who are in recovery from an eating disorder, know you have full permission to rest. This is exactly what your body might need right now and is relevant irrespective of weight or diagnosis. Adequate consistent nourishment, and changing negative thinking and behaviours should be prioritised at this time. Movement will always be there when you are ready to engage with it in a healthy way again.
How can I overcome unhealthy exercise with an eating disorder?
I always remind my clients of this: you can’t put yourself back in the same environment that once made you unwell. If one form of exercise has been overused it can be helpful to explore another type of exercise when you return back.
Here are a few steps to help you overcome unhealthy exercise and resume physical activity in a safe and healthy way:
Talk to your treatment team about your motivation to return to exercise, including any fears or hesitations, as well as what you’re looking forward to most.
Get the right support. Initially it can be helpful to work with an exercise physiologist or personal trainer who works under a Health At Every Size model and has an understanding of eating disorder recovery. They’ll be able to provide support and a sounding board for you to ask questions about time, type, intensity, or duration of activities, can prescribe an appropriate exercise plan, or supervise your training sessions before you start to exercise independently again.
Have something planned for immediately after exercise. This will help you stick to the time limit you set for yourself and hold you accountable to it.
Think outside the box! Not all movement needs to be done in a gym. Start to explore different types of activities that are social and fun such as team sports, rock climbing, lawn bowls, Tai Chi, or even just dancing up a storm in your kitchen as you cook like I do!
Check in with yourself. If you start to push things again ask yourself: What does my body truly need right now? How does it feel? What are my moods like? Do I need to take some rest or change up my routine? What kind of movement will support my overall health today?
Also remember to be patient and kind with yourself through this process. You won’t magically wake up one day and feel super balanced about everything, but if you chip away at it every day over time you’ll notice and feel the difference.
What types of exercise I should be focusing on?
If we look at the science of exercise, yes, there are certain types of exercise we should focus on, including cardio, strength, and core/flexibility.
Cardiovascular type activities such as walking, cycling, boxing, rowing, swimming, jogging or anything that raises your heart rate for a sustained period of time is important for heart health. It keeps our heart muscle strong and our arteries flexible, lowering our risk of chronic disease.
In addition to this, we should focus on strengthening exercises two to three times a week. Lifting weights, or doing bodyweight exercises like squats, lunges, and push-ups helps our muscular system stay strong, which keeps our metabolism healthy, and prevents bone loss thereby reducing the risk of osteoporosis.
Core and Flexibility
Lastly core and flexibility exercise is important to maintain our joint range of motion, help support pelvic floor strength, and can help prevent lower back pain.
I could go on and on about why you should try to balance all three types of movement, but the most important thing is to choose something you enjoy doing. When you engage in an activity you enjoy, you’re more likely to do it long-term! Additionally, those looking to regain a healthier relationship with exercise might benefit from dropping the notion that they ‘must do’ something and instead focus on what brings them joy and feels good in their body. We've got a whole separate blog post if challenging these unhelpful styles of thinking such as "shoulds and musts" is something which would support you.
Are there certain foods I need to be eating?
The most important thing is that you are providing your body with enough fuel to engage in physical activity. If you are under-eating you will put your body at an increased risk of injury, illness and potentially relapse as restriction can trigger disordered thoughts and behaviours. With under-eating and over-exercising also comes the risk of low energy availability and RED-S.
The best diet is one that is balanced and includes adequate carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats as these macronutrients provide fuel for the body. Depending on the type and level of activity you are participating in you might need to increase your intake or change the type of food to ensure that you are appropriately fuelling your body pre and post any activity. It is best to talk to a Dietitian or another member of your team about this so that you can receive individualised advice.
I hope that you were able to learn something new by reading this! If you have any questions please send me a message through Instagram or if you would like support from our team of TCN specialist dietitians please use the contact page on our website.
You can follow Sarah on Instagram or Facebook and head to her website for amazing resources, tips and to sign up to her weekly newsletter www.sarahlizking.com. She also has a new podcast Holistic Health Radio on iTunes and Spotify!
Talia Cecchele Nutrition (TCN Clinic) is a team of registered dietitians that specialises in eating disorder recovery, disordered eating, gut health and sports nutrition. We aim to bring balance back to nutrition, help you to break free from food rules and find food freedom. We offer virtual consultations and group programs so whether you are based in London, the United Kingdom or around the world we would love to support you. To enquire please fill out a contact form.