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Over-exercising: How to find out if you're becoming addicted to working out

Regular exercise is something we all know can help our mental health and reduce stress levels. But is there a point where too much exercise becomes unhealthy?

The mental health charity Mind are concerned that some people may be becoming overly reliant on exercise and are urging ‘exercise addicts’ to build in rest days.

21-year-old Catherine spoke to Emma Barnett on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour about her experience of becoming too reliant on exercise. She says it negatively impacted her wellbeing and it became the ‘sole purpose’ of her day.

Hayley Jarvis, Mind’s Head of Physical Activity, also shared some advice about how to spot the warning signs of over-exercising and what you can do to avoid it.

Catherine's story

During the pandemic, Catherine was put on furlough. The 21-year-old, who had struggled with an eating disorder, found herself increasing her levels of exercise to fill the extra time.

“When I was put on furlough, my days lacked structure and routine, so I started exercising more as a means to fill some time. I used exercise to control what I couldn’t control, which was being off work.

“I realised there was a problem when I was starting to withdraw from social situations and make excuses to be able to exercise. I was doing it in secret as well. I didn't want to tell people where I was going or what I was doing, I just wanted to hide it away. Before I knew it, exercise became the sole purpose for my day.

“I didn’t realise the effect it was having on my wellbeing until it was too late. Inevitably, I burnt out. It all became too much and I confided in my mum.

“I had to force myself to reduce my exercise, even if I didn’t want to, as I knew in the long-term it was necessary to get my life back. So I monitored how much I was doing and reframed my ‘minimum amounts’ into ‘maximum amounts’.

“I found it really hard to talk about the experiences that I had because we're in a society that doesn't treat exercise as a problem or see that you can over-do exercise.

“Everyone has a very personal amount of exercise that they do. When you go over that amount and you start setting unlimited boundaries for how much exercise you are doing, forcing yourself to almost go against what your body is telling you to do, that’s when you know you’re doing too much.”

So, what signs should we be looking for in ourselves and our loved ones, which could indicate an addiction to exercising?

“Most of us aren't active enough and that's a problem. But for some of us, it can become too much,” says Hayley Jarvis, Mind’s Head of Physical Activity.

“It is so personal and we all are all so different. But what we're talking about is:

  • When we're exercising for too long or too intensively without enough rest.
  • When you’re exercising and you can't stop exercising without feeling distressed or worried about it.
  • When exercise is impacting on your job or your relationships.
  • When you’re making excuses or doing it in secret.
  • When you're unwell or when you're tired or injured and you’re still exercising several times a day.
  • When exercising almost becomes your identity and the most important thing in your life, which defines who you are.

“That's when it's becoming a problem, and you need to really get help and support for it.”

Advice for avoiding an exercise addiction – from Hayley Jarvis, Mind’s Head of Physical Activity.

1. Take rest days

“Check in with yourself by doing a body scan or massage or look to engage in a new hobby such as reading, meditation or photography. Rest is personal. Some of us may find it difficult to start with. You may start with active rest, such as a light or easy activity where you’re still moving - but not at a high intensity.”

2. Make sure you are exercising for the right reasons

“Make sure exercising is fun, you feel empowered, you're doing it because you want to feel good.

“But also make sure you know about the benefits of rest and the need for a varied routine. We need to build in strength work, we need to build in stretching, and we all need a rest day.”

3. Do things you enjoy that isn't exercise

“Try to connect with others and do things you enjoy that isn’t exercise. Try activities or hobbies that allow you to have a rest from your normal routine – choose something that helps you feel good.

“We can check in with ourselves, but also look out for our friends and family. If we're worried about someone, just checking in and asking them why they're exercising and trying to start those conversations is really important.”

4. Set realistic goals

“You could set realistic goals that aren’t based around your weight or shape. Be kind to yourself. Not every day will lead to a personal best, and that’s ok.”

5. Maintain some sort of balance

“Aim for a balance and be mindful of the exercise you do – it might help to keep an activity diary to ensure you’re getting the right mix.”

Listen back to the full interview with Emma Barnett on BBC Sounds, where you can also find any episodes of Woman’s Hour you may have missed. Join the conversation @bbcwomanshour on Instagram and Twitter.

Follow the links below for further support and information.

Mind - Get active, feel good!