Exercise Can Be Unhealthy, Too. Here Are 3 Red Flags to Look For

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We know exercise is good for the body, but what about the mind? Generally, the answer is an absolute yes. However, there are times when the goals we set for ourselves can turn sour if exercise takes over other aspects of our lives. It should be one of many tools to help us stay healthy, feel stronger or have fun.

When you think about the gym, it’s often through the lens of how you view your body because of societal pressures. But your relationship with fitness is much deeper than that. It’s important to explore your habits and rituals with exercise, and watch out for signs that they’ve become more harmful than helpful.

How exercise affects physical and mental health


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Physical movement is a crucial part of wellness, no matter what form it takes. The last thing we want to do is convince you otherwise. By integrating exercise into your lifestyle, you can lower your risk of developing health issues like heart attacks, high blood pressure, chronic inflammation and Type 2 diabetes.

Beyond your body, exercise can have positive impacts on your mental health, too. You can use exercise and workouts to manage everyday stressors and navigate emotions.

“Exercise reduces anxiety, increases optimism and leads to an improved quality of life,” says L. Kevin Chapman, a licensed clinical psychologist. “For significant emotional symptoms, exercise is a useful addition to therapy, not a useful replacement. For general stress, exercise is terrific.”

There are many ways that exercise helps your mental health:

However, working out is not the only tool you should use to improve your mental health.

Signs your gym habit might be unhealthy


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In some cases, there’s a limit to what a healthy relationship with the gym can look like. A dependence on the gym as a coping mechanism can negatively impact your mental health.

“Exercise can also be a form of emotional avoidance if done in excess,” says Chapman. “In other words, if I use exercise or any other ‘prosocial’ behavior to avoid the experience of anxiety, this could reinforce the idea that anxiety is dangerous and the only way I can manage anxiety is through exercise.”

Sometimes, it’s hard to spot. And it can even happen without you even noticing. Here are a few warning signs that your relationship with exercise might be harmful.

1. You never take breaks

One sign that your relationship is in trouble is if you overtrain or push yourself too far – even during illness or injuries. Overtraining syndrome is common among gymgoers who push themselves through a string of high-intensity workouts without adequate rest and recovery time.

Not only does this put significant strain on your body, but depriving your body of energy can lead to dysfunctional adaptations in your metabolism, immune system and hormones.

It’s essential to give your body the chance to rest. Yes, consistency is important, but so is giving your body a break. Rest days give your body time to recover and your muscles time to grow. Your rest days may involve gentle stretching or binge-watching your favorite TV show – it’s whatever works for you.

2. You feel guilty if you do not go to the gym

Even the most consistent gymgoer misses days – sometimes life gets in the way, or we’m just not up to it. And that’s fine. We should not feel guilt or anxiety, nor overestimate the negative consequences of missing a workout.

When you think you’re not doing enough to meet the goals you set for yourself or the social standards set for you, you may feel shame and guilt about not reaching your goals. Low levels of this are natural – we’re human. But ongoing or severe guilt is cause for concern. Breaking the cycle of feeling bad if you miss the gym will help you build a healthier relationship with fitness.

3. You’re using exercise to control your body

If you’re worried that your relationship with exercise might be leaning toward problematic, think about why you’re exercising. Are you trying to be healthier? Or are you only going in hopes of changing your body?

If you use the gym to control your body, it can become an obsession that may cause or increase appearance anxiety, exercise addiction and body dysmorphia. A sign of this could be exercising more or increasing your workout to make up for the food you’ve eaten. It’s OK to have weight loss goals – they just need to be realistic and achievable for your body. Remember that food is important, and it’s something we have to make up for.

Exercise is not a replacement for therapy


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Many people use exercise as a way to relieve anxiety. For everyday stressors, this is perfectly fine and even encouraged. But it can become risky if your exercise habits are the only coping method for dealing with your problems.

Ask yourself if this behavior is making you more distressed or impairing your functioning in any way. If the answer is yes, then according to Chapman, “that implies that additional assistance may be in order.”

Sometimes, the best option is to skip the personal trainer and seek professional help to cope with challenges in life. Some problems need real mental health support and you should feel empowered to get it – in whatever form works for you, whether online or in-person.

If you think your relationship with exercise is becoming unhealthy, try to work through any negative association you have with yourself. You’ll be happier and healthier in the long run.

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.

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