Can Too Much Exercise be Harmful? An RD’s Journey with Disordered Exercise and Eating

Today I took an exercise recovery day, which for me is running at a slower pace than normal and running for 4 minutes then walking for 1 minute and repeat until I wanted to stop.

Stopping is not when I reach a certain mileage, but when I feel like my body and brain has

had enough exercise. Recovery day is also part of my mindful movement journey with physical activity and exercise. You see, I used to be an over exerciser, some may say addict. I would exercise, run, lift weights and do everything at maximum effort and for a certain amount of time in the effort to be thin enough. However, in my eyes, I was never thin enough; I was finding out I needed more and more exercise in order to get that feeling of relief that I had done enough and worked myself to complete exhaustion. I would run if I was sick, if I was injured, and even though I didn’t feel like exercising. This went on until I wanted to have a baby, but sustaining that amount of exercise on the small amount of food I was eating, left me with amenorrhea for 1.5 years and several years of disordered eating and exercise problem. Fast forward a few years---I have recovered from an eating disorder and over exercising and had two beautiful baby girls (now 21, and 18 years of age; however my recovery story is very long and not linear so will need to save that for another blog.

So back to exercise--exercise is supposed to be good for you right? Just like anything, too much or too little of something usually is problematic—perhaps mentally AND physically. But exercise? How can too much exercise be bad for you? Even too much exercise can put too much stress on your body, and it can start to deteriorate, become injured, and elevate stress hormones in your body. I made a lot of headway by decreasing exercise and increasing food intake in order to have a baby, but I still did not have a healthy relationship with exercise. It took having bilateral foot surgery to repair the damage and to sit with the extreme anxiety of not being able to work out like I used too. To this day, when I tell healthcare professionals that I need to be mindful of my exercise and keep it balanced so I don’t over exercise they will make comments such as “if you are going to have a problem, I guess over exercise seems like a good one” or “I wish I had that problem”. This demonstrates the lack of understanding of eating disorders and over exercise and really minimizes the severity of the issue altogether.

Currently I still like to exercise. I sometimes like to exercise hard. I happen to be one of those people that enjoys sweating, getting my heart rate up and some friendly competition. I love to do all day relays with friends and mud races with obstacles. However, the biggest difference now is that I am not exercising to burn Calories or too lose weight. I primarily exercise because it helps my mental health greatly, it is fun, and I like how it makes me feel. I also take recovery days, rest days, and don’t exercise if sick or injured. However, it was not easy to get from disordered exercising to be thin to balanced exercise for mental and physical health. If I am not careful, I can easily add in more and more exercise. Therefore, I am very purposeful when I exercise and check in with my body throughout the entire process to see how it feels.

My goal now is to feel strong, empowered, and de-stressed. Therefore, I plan in mindful movement activities like my recovery runs where I run at a slower pace, walk some, stop and take pictures and notice the beauty around me. Running in small town Iowa, means a lot of cornfields, cemeteries, and gravel roads and I love it!

Now do not confuse recovery with rest! Rest days are important too, and I take those as well.

Rest days are about not getting your heart rate elevated and allowing yourself more sleep! I can proudly say, I now have a healthy relationship with food AND exercise!!

Here is to a gorgeous day in IA❤️!

Exercise because you love your body, not because you hate it.

Alison St. Germain, MS, RD, LD is a Professor at Iowa State University in the Food Science and Human Nutrition Department & a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor and is passionate about body respect and diversity and non-diet weight neutral approaches to well-being


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