As a self-proclaimed magazine fetishist, I can’t resist stopping to take a peek at some of my favorites – SELF, Glamour, StyleWatch and Allure – whenever I pass the newsstand. As I flip through their glossy pages and begin to fantasize about bikini tops, maxi skirts, denim shorts and floppy hats, article titles showcasing tips on weight loss and exercise routines jump out at me.“Drop 10, 20, 30 pounds!” one screams. “Get your best bikini bod!” another advertises. I think back to my own daily exercises, wondering how I can make the time to add these new routines to my regimen. Is it too much? I wonder. Furthermore, how do I know when it’s too much? As health-conscious and constantly on-the-go collegiettes™, it’s often hard for us to gauge whether or not we’re overdoing it and even harder for us to scale back.
We’ve all heard about watching how much we eat, but we rarely hear about watching how much we exercise. Turns out, it’s just as important, because there really is such thing as having too much of a good thing.
What Is Over-Exercising?
Over-exercising is not just about pulling a muscle or lifting more than you can handle; it’s actually a very serious psychological disorder. Doctors and nutritionists say that an addiction to exercise may stem from something you need desperately, but can’t handle emotionally. “It’s brought about because you have a secret,” says nutritionist Lisa Cohn. “You’re keeping a secret from others and most importantly, from yourself.” This “secret” can be anything from insecurity about your weight to feelings of depression, and causes you to develop a strong, very serious addiction to exercise.
Like any other addiction, over-exercising causes you to become obsessive. Doctors and nutritionists say that those who are addicted to exercise often spend a large part of their day planning workout routines and schedules for themselves. It becomes very stressful to fit in several hours on the treadmill when you have schoolwork, friends and meals to work around. As a result, those who are addicted to exercise may become more self-restrictive in their diets and social activities. Jane*, a college student who went through a period of overexercising, says that she began to go to the gym in secret to avoid her friends’ disapproval. “I had to sneak out when I wanted to exercise,” she says.
What’s the difference between someone who has a serious psychological disorder and someone who’s just a healthy, very serious athlete?
“If you ask an athlete in training,” says Cohn, “they’ll tell you that they feel good after working out because they’re working towards a goal, like running a marathon for example. But if you ask someone who has an exercise obsession, they’ll tell you that they have to work out; they can’t feel good about themselves otherwise.” Therapist Naomi Sussman explains that over-exercising is often triggered by either body dysmorphia (a distortion in your brain as to how you view yourself) or the need to self-medicate. Someone who suffers from body dysmorphia may be focused on the “calories in, calories out” aspect of exercising, meaning the minute they eat or drink something they feel the need to burn the calories off. Someone who is using exercise as a form of self-medication may be trying to mask depression or trauma. Some people’s bodies produce less of the natural “happy drugs” such as dopamine, serotonin and epinephrine. Exercising helps your body to release these drugs and can boost your spirits. We’ve all used those 10-minutes on the elliptical and those 50 crunches as a way to get some extra energy before finals or help us stay up late to finish a paper, but when you become dependent on exercise for happiness or feel the urge to hit the treadmill after each meal, it’s a sure sign that you’re over-doing it.
The Facts: Effects of Over-Exercising
Over-exercising without proper rest periods can weaken your immune system and change your sleeping patterns, making you much more susceptible to diseases and other illnesses. It can also affect you emotionally and cause changes in your behavior. When you over-train, your body releases a hormone called cortisol, the same hormone it releases when you’re stressed. Personal trainer Mike Cruickshank says that “over-exercising can change a person’s mental outlook to the point where they become very crabby or stressed out.” Cruickshank also points out that when you overdo it, your muscles will take longer to recover. You may feel a constant level of soreness, particularly in your knees, elbows, and hips. “Everyone’s body is different,” Cruickshank stresses. “It could take anywhere from 6 to 48 hours for someone’s body to recover [from overexercising].”
Doctors have observed that excessive exercise is often linked to eating disorders, and they say it’s important that you don’t burn off an unhealthy number of calories when exercising. Doctor Serena Chen says a simple way to make sure that you’re on the right track is to check your BMI (body mass index). Just plug your height and weight into a BMI calculator. According to doctors, a healthy BMI is at a level of 18.5 to 24.9. A low BMI can drastically change your menstrual cycle and even prevent you from having your period! As nice as that may sound, a lack of a period is a signal that your body may not be getting enough estrogen, which can lead to bone fractures and osteoporosis in the future. As young women, we’re continually building bones until we turn 30, so it’s important that we give them a healthy foundation! “Over-exercising sets us up for serious physical issues later in life and can cause permanent damage,” Chen says.
It Takes Two: The Balance Between Food and Exercise
Because over-exercising can be linked to eating disorders, it’s important to be smart when planning your meals and exercise routines. To avoid unhealthy habits, keep in mind that the recommended daily calorie intake for women between the ages of 19 and 30 is 2,000 to 2,400. Doctors say that exercise addiction is often a companion to binge eating. It’s definitely important to eat, but make sure that you’re making healthy choices when it comes to what and how much you’re taking in! Re-fuel your body with healthy meals and snacks that include lots of protein (lean meats, nuts, grains, cheeses, etc.), fruits and vegetables, and make sure that you drink plenty of fluids. “Not many people are familiar with the symptoms of dehydration,” Cohn comments. Dehydration can cause dizziness and nausea, so it’s important to stay hydrated when you exercise. As long as you get the proper amount of nutrients and fluids, you’ll have the strength you need to get through a healthy workout!
Where Can I Get Help?
Because over-exercising stems from something more emotionally oriented, it can be incredibly difficult for someone who is suffering from the addiction to identify it in themselves. In Jane’s case, it was her friends who noticed it first. “I was exercising every day and all of my friends started to judge me, saying that I was too obsessed,” she says, adding, “[They] told me not to go to the gym.” Remember that it’s important to look out for your friends! If someone you know is more concerned with getting to the gym than anything else or is going unusually frequently — such as after practically every bite she takes —, suggest that she talk to a personal trainer about putting together a healthy exercise routine and schedule for herself. For collegiettes like Jane, Cohn suggests talking to someone at a health center about how to create a balanced routine. “College is about learning how to be your best coach,” she says. “At the health center, they will help you to communicate better with yourself, define realistic boundaries, and set goals that you can achieve.” Cohn says that looking on magazines’ websites such as SELF can also be a great resource; your questions will be answered by professional dietitians, and you know the workouts these magazines feature are healthy. Your campus’s mental health services are another key place to turn for help.
Keeping it Real: But I Want to Look Like Her!
Your physical health greatly depends on your emotional health, so steer clear of unrealistic goals when you’re exercising! “Don’t ever compare yourself to someone else in a negative way,” Cruickshank stresses to all of his clients. “You have to understand that you are a unique individual.” It’s okay to compare yourself to other women in order to help you reach your goals, but it’s important to only use comparisons to help you become the best version of yourself... not someone else! Everyone has a different body type, and if you eat and exercise with someone else’s body in mind, you’re not going to develop habits that are healthy for you. So next time you’re at the gym, instead of setting unrealistic goals based on someone else’s figure, think about how much you love the strong body that you’re building for yourself!
Stay active and healthy, collegiettes™!
Serena H. Chen, MD, director of reproductive medicine and ovum donation at St. Barnabas Medical Center
Lisa Cohn, nutritionist, director, and owner of Park Avenue Nutrition
Mike Cruickshank, C.S.C.S. NSCA
Naomi Sussman, LCSW
Kevin C., certified personal trainer, Columbia University freshman
Gretchen L., dancer
Paula Owens, M.S., nutritionist, multi-certified fitness expert and holistic health practitioner
*Collegiettes around the country (names have been changed)