When Exercise Becomes Too Much of a Good Thing

November 28, 2019

A painting of a boy flexing his bicep in front of a man.
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“No pain, no gain.”

“You’re only one workout away from a good mood.”

“Good things come to those who sweat.”

These are just a few of the motivational quotes buzzing around that plague our Instagram feeds that are often accompanied by a picture of a sports model. Although the intention and message behind these quotes are to inspire us to achieve and push past limits, it can sometimes have a negative connotation. We find that many women (and men) working towards bettering their health and wanting to take care of themselves often get caught in a bind when a good thing, such as healthy eating and exercise, becomes too much of a good thing to the extent of jeopardizing one’s mental and physical health. Don’t get us wrong, we are in no way shaming or saying working out and eating well are bad things. We both enjoy and value exercising and taking care of our health. But, we have noticed a miss in the fitness and wellness industry.

Which leads to the question: What is the difference between health and an unhealthy obsession? And how can we distinguish between the two?

We live in a society that reveres eating healthfully and working out and are often bombarded by fitness gurus, new diets, and are even told by our doctors that we need to stay active and eat well. While taking care of ourselves, regarding what we eat and how we use exercise, is important, it often can become tricky to determine what is for “health” and what is to “achieve” a certain look. It can become so easy to begin labeling foods as good or bad and getting down on yourself if you have something off of your “bad list.” This can perpetuate the idea that if you do not eat or exercise a certain way, you are not okay, not good enough, “bad” or unworthy.

We think food gets a bad rap. Of course, there are foods that are much more nutrient-dense than others, but it is not the actual food that is inherently bad; rather we believe it is what you do with it and the messages that are attached. For instance, if we ate nothing but Twix bars, fast food and drank nothing but soda then we would not be leading the most helpful lifestyle. But in the same way, if we ate nothing but what we perceive as “healthy” and did not allow ourselves the things we may be craving in moderation, it can lead to a destructive cycle of rigidity, to binging, to freaking out over being “bad” or “cheating” on your diet. This can then lead to having to get that extra workout in or making deals with yourself that you will eat healthy the rest of the week to repair the damage you’re telling yourself you caused.

So what then? How do you find the happy medium between taking care of yourself and living a “balanced” life? We believe it starts with the intentionality behind why you are exercising or choosing the foods you are choosing. Are you opting to workout today because it feels good and you want to maintain a healthy lifestyle or are you choosing to because you just have to lose just a few more pounds?

A painting of a boy flexing his bicep in front of a man.

Untitled by Ricky Kruger

Check in with yourself before you engage in the movement. If it feels like the reasons are not the most helpful, engage in other activities to feed the soul. Perhaps reading a book, calling a friend, guided meditation, stretching or yoga may serve you more in the moment.

North America does not appear to be the only nation preoccupied with health and beauty. Nor is this chase for beauty only prevalent in today’s society. For instance, In the late 1800s, Germany became interested in alternative ways to achieve health and beauty. Being beautiful and having a beautiful body equated higher accomplishment, success and socioeconomic status. Attaining and maintaining beauty focused on more naturopathic means, which seemed provocative at the time to an already established medical model for health.

“I argue that subjective experience of illness was mediated or constituted by the social experience of individuals. This is evident, for example, in the frequent complaints about nervousness among life reform supporters who were afraid that they could not keep up with their own career expectations. Indeed, as Germans increasingly medicalized their professional and personal problems, anxieties about success were often at the root of concerns about health and fitness.” (The Cult of Health and Beauty in Germany: A Social History by Michael Hau)

Although the obsession with beauty has been ever-present across many cultures and decades, not everyone follows suit. Some may even lean on the other side of the spectrum, wanting to fight against beauty ideals. And although the mission behind these movements to challenge conformity and to move to a place of inclusivity and acceptance, many lose sight of caring for the self through healthy lifestyles. On a national level, some countries seem to be in direct incongruence to the US and Canada’s obsession with living such healthiness. For instance, countries such as Belarus and Russia have some of the highest percentages of alcohol consumption and smoking despite information readily available out there identifying the risks of engaging in these behaviors excessively.

We would like to invite people to be more open-minded, to be a better consumer of society and to find what works for your body and mental health. To be cognizant of medical research, to eat well, engage in balanced exercise. We do not want to perpetuate the obsession with health or promote a complete disregard for taking care of self. Rather, we want to encourage you to find your own balance and path to wellnesswithout judgment, without comparison, and with love.

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