Can too much exercise affect your mental health negatively?

Can too much exercise affect your mental health negatively?

Exercise is Good, Right?

Exercise is often touted as one of the best things that you can do for your mental health. And indeed, the benefits are vast: stress reduction, lowered depression, and decreased anxiety, to name a few. Add in the cardiovascular and bone health benefits and it seems like you can’t go wrong, right?

Exercise is incredibly helpful, except when it’s not.

We don’t fully understand the mechanisms by which exercise seems to help many people’s mental health. We believe it has to do with the feel-good endorphins that are released in high-intensity workouts, or the growth factors that help create new neural connections with long-term exercise.

Regardless, for mild to moderate depression, exercise can sometimes be as effective as anti-depressants. (Note that for severe depression, it’s not.)

Until the Crash

If you are an avid exerciser or athlete, you may have experienced some of these mood-boosting benefits yourself. Perhaps so much so, that you felt unable to dial back of your routine without a bit of a crash. Or you may have noticed that when you’re sidelined — for an injury or just another obligation — you’ve gotten irritable, anxious, or out of sorts with your mood.

If this describes you, it might be worth considering the function exercise is playing in your life. For some, this can be a signal that exercise has become compulsive or even problematic. Here are some signs to watch out for:

  • You get your workout in at all costs. Even if it means putting other things you value on hold, it’s imperative that you get this done.
  • If something interrupts you starting or finishing your workout, you find yourself cranky and perhaps even saying or doing things that you don’t like.
  • You find yourself exercising secretly because you’re aware that others may find the amount or intensity excessive.
  • People in your life have commented on how much you exercise or even that they are concerned you’re “over-doing it.”
  • You restrict your food intake based on how much or hard you worked out, feeling you only deserve to eat certain things or amounts if you’ve worked hard enough.

Of course, these issues popping up once or twice or in isolation may not signal a major concern, but if you’re noticing a few of these statements apply to you, it’s worth digging a little deeper.

Compulsive exercise is a condition in which there is a strong urge for physical activity, regardless of the potential consequences. People who struggle with compulsivity in their exercise behaviors can find themselves not allowing enough time for physical recovery and becoming injured more easily. They might also do serious damage to their physical body by disregarding medical advice or failing to fuel their movement adequately.

If you recognize some of these patterns of behavior in yourself, it can be helpful to talk with a professional who can help you determine where the best limits on movement should be and understand better the compulsive behavior.

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About the author:

Dr. Ashley Solomon is a licensed clinical psychologist and the founder of Galia Collaborative, an organization focused on enhancing mental strength and wellness. Dr. Solomon is committed to an inclusive, culturally relevant, and evidenced-based approach to working with individuals. She specializes in issues related to anxiety, eating, performance, and stress.

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