7 steps to stop over-exercise

Moving your body is wonderful for your mental and physical well-being. Physically, you can develop strength, cardiovascular fitness, flexibility and improve energy levels. For mental health, anxiety lessens, mood improves, body image is enhanced, and sleep quality boosted.  

You may think, "What’s not to love?" However, there is such a thing, as too much activity.

What is over-exercise?

Compulsive exercise or over-exercise is a real problem, where the joy and benefits dissipate. Over-exercising can result in:

Physical symptoms

  • weariness and exhaustion from over-exercise
  • stress fractures
  • osteoporosis
  • dehydration
  • frequent injuries
  • poor immune functioning

Emotional and social symptoms

  • prevents you from socialising with friends or relaxing
  • isolating due to demands of routine
  • increased levels of anxiety and irritability, when unable to exercise
  • body dissatisfaction
  • poor concentration

How can you change your relationship with exercise?

Here are seven steps to help you stop compulsively exercising.

1. Acknowledge that over-activity is a problem

In a culture where you are constantly told to ‘eat less and move more', this overriding message can be interpreted as ‘all exercise is good’. 

It is vital to step back and do an honest appraisal of your activity. Which of the above physical, emotional and social symptoms do you relate to?

2. Consider the relationship you would like to have

If you realise that you’re off-kilter with exercise, consider the following questions:

  • How would you like to feel about moving your body?
  • How often would you be doing this?
  • What about rest days?
  • How would you like to be feeling physically and mentally?
  • What could be the very first step in this direction?

3. Normalise anxiety

You may feel profound terror at the thought of reducing your activity. Over-exercise has become a safety behaviour, which you turn to in order to reduce anxiety.

Not doing it might initially leave you ‘climbing the walls’ or terrified about weight gain. Your head will be telling you all kinds of catastrophic stories about what might happen. This is OK and to be anticipated. You will get through this.

People generally find that the thought of the change is much worse than the actual change itself. Push through and persist in trying something different.

Three people doing yoga class

4. Get support

You might need to have some support in place as you navigate change. 

In the moment, you may need to reach out and speak to someone or send a text. You might need to proactively fill the time with an activity that offers distraction (not exercise though).

What do you need to do to support yourself?

5. Reduce activity levels

Set some baby-step goals to move you in the direction of change.

  • If you’re doing a certain number of steps per day, think about reducing this by a specific number. 
  • If you’re having to work out so many times a week, think about cutting a session.
  • If you’re running for X number of minutes, then consider how you might reduce this down.

Remember that baby steps do add up.

It’s helpful to view working on this as a marathon (excuse the pun) rather than a sprint. One day you will look back and see just how far you have come.

6. Learn to listen to your body

If you have disordered eating, you’ll be completely out of tune with your body and its signals. You might regularly push yourself to exhaustion and over-hunger. 

You’ll likely be driven by an internal critic, who chastises you for not being productive and calls you lazy if you even think about sitting down.

Work to quieten the bully in your head. Begin to listen to your body and trust its inner wisdom.

Do you feel tired? Do you need a rest? What do you need right now?

7. Reframe exercise as joyful movement

Move away from seeing exercise as something to purely burn off calories, as this leads to an ‘all or nothing’ relationship. With this fixed mindset, you are either excelling or you might abandon it completely.

Instead, see activity as something for mental and physical well-being. Think about decreased anxiety, improved mood, enhanced body image and better sleep.

If you’re struggling with over-exercise, you might want to consider getting further support through counselling.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Cambridge, CB1

Written by Harriet Frew

Cambridge, CB1

Harriet Frew is a counsellor specialising in eating disorders and body image. She has worked in the NHS and private practice since 2003, and is passionate about supporting and educating others through therapy, writing and social media.
Instagram: @the_eating_disorder_therapist; Podcast - The Eating Disorder Therapist

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