We’ve all heard the saying, “Too much of a good thing.” Its origin is attributed to Shakespeare’s As You Like It and is oft quoted when it comes to examples of gluttony, excess, and the spoils of riches. While we might debate how much is too much or what constitutes a “good” thing, in our excess-driven culture, it seems we don’t really buy the too-much-of-a-good-thing mantra.
Clearly, in the minds of most, exercise is also a good thing, and collectively we certainly need more of it. However, there seems to be much confusion as to how much is enough – or too much.
Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Exercise?
There’s a wide societal gap when it comes to the question of how much exercise. On one end of the spectrum there’s the sedentary and obese (too much of a good thing – junk food). On the other end, the über-fit (too much of a good thing – exercise).
We all seem to agree that obesity is a bad thing, whether in regards to the person it afflicts or the skyrocketing healthcare costs all of us are saddled with as a result. But what about too much exercise? On the surface, exercise addiction seems like a good problem to have. Many people make up every excuse not to exercise and just getting to the gym can be a struggle. Isn’t it admirable to have the drive to get there twice day? Besides, how much you exercise is your business. After all, you can’t be too healthy, can you?
Perhaps not, but exercise and the amount we do of it aren’t necessarily synonomous with health. Many other variables determine health, from nutrition to family life. Happiness, ultimately, is dependent on self-awareness and self-actualization, not six-pack abs. While you can debate the merits of exactly how much exercise is enough, the following may help you determine if perhaps you’re doing too much.
You Are often Sick, Injured, or Depressed
Exercise is a wonderful combatant to depression as it releases endorphins and the powerful hormone serotonin. However, too much of a good thing can lead to the pendulum swinging the other way. Not being able to exercise can make those dependant on it irritable. Furthermore, not being able to continuously find the high from exercise can lead to depression.
The bottom line here is one of motive – is exercise a means of escapism or a means of getting present? Exercise is a great way to express our physicality and find the present moment, so long as it is not done in the name of escapism. Escapism can manifest in the form of focusing purely on the body, but no matter how fit we are or how toned our biceps, our problems and fears are still there when we leave the gym.
As an advisor of mine said once to me, “Eric you can’t outrun your shadow.”
You Define Your Happiness by Your Body or Level of Fitness
I recently joked with a friend that when I go I hope my tombstone doesn’t say, “Here lies Eric. He liked to exercise a lot.” Our activities don’t define who we are – qualities do. You aren’t what you do. You are what is inside you.
My girlfriend is a former competitive Ironman triathlete. She recently retired from the sport and seldom mentions her racing days. While she is proud of her former accomplishments, she doesn’t dwell on the past, and instead looks forward to what’s next. While it takes tremendous drive and courage to prepare for and compete in an endeavor like Ironman, it takes an equal amount of courage to know when enough is enough and the time is right to try something different.
Our activities, careers, and life in sport will change over time and even diminish. The qualities we express in doing them are what count.
Your Relationships Suffer
My girlfriend mentioned to me that in her Ironman racing days she saw countless relationships suffer and end due to the constraints and rigors of training. If you look online, you’ll even see a phenomenon called “divorce by triathlon.”
I am not saying tritahletes are bad people or bad partners. Our passions are important, and if doing triathlons is yours, then go for it. What I am saying is that if your relationships are suffering as a result of how you train and the relative importance you place on it, then your life is giving you a message about your priorities.
How we relate with others is considerably more important than the activities we do. Again, I am guessing that on your tombstone you wouldn’t want it to say, “Here lies Janet. She rode her bike really fast.”
You Train Like Pro, But You Aren’t One
Some people workout out every day, all day. They go from their weight workout to their flexibility training to their aerobic conditioning all in one day. These people are called professional athletes.
Professional defined as in you are paid to do said activity. It’s a job. If you’re putting in work like a pro, but aren’t being paid to be one, perhaps it’s time to consider your priorities. Again, how much you exercise is your business, but to what end?
It’s a question I have had to consider in my own life in fitness and I am glad I did. Look, I‘m not here to knock passion. I am a passion guy. Far be it from me to criticize you if you like to work out every day or even twice a day. But what I can tell you is that peace of mind is a far greater possession than passion. Passion ebbs and flows.
When it ebbs, passion leads to depression. Peace of mind, conversely, leads to contentment regardless of your physical circumstances.
Are You Addicted to Exercise?
As to whether you are truly addicted to exercise, that’s something more serious to ponder. In some of my research, I came across an interesting list compiled by exercise psychologists Heather Hausenblas, Ph.D. and Danielle Symons Downs, Ph.D. They compiled what is known as the Exercise Dependence Scale to assess and individual’s risk for exercise addiction. The scale is modeled after the protocol for identifying substance addictions.
Seven factors are assessed and it’s something for us fitness junkies to consider:
- Tolerance: You need more and more to achieve the same effects.
- Withdrawal: Increased agitation, fatigue, and tension if you don’t exercise.
- Intention Effect: Exercising for longer than intended on most trips to the gym.
- Lack of Control: Difficulty scaling back the duration and intensity of exercise.
- TimeSpent: Spending huge amounts of time on fitness related activities.
- Reduction of Other Pursuits: Is exercising too much affecting other parts of your life? (social, work, relationships).
- Continuance Despite Injury: You train even when you are injured.
1. H.A. Hausenblas and D. Symons Downs, “Exercise Dependence Scale-21 Manual,” 2002.