The "unhealthy" side to exercise

There is no denying that there is a vast range of benefits that exercise has on our mental health. However, like all things, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. We can, in fact, exercise “too much”, by no longer mentally and physically supporting us. It is important to note that exercise has been found to reduce symptoms in those with ‘mild-to-moderate depressive/anxiety symptoms’; there is less research that shows evidence of exercise preventing the onset of these disorders or for using exercise as a treatment for those with chronic and acute symptoms.

So where can exercise become “unhealthy”?

Training and exercise can do incredible things for our confidence, our quality of life, and our general health and wellbeing. But it is important to ensure that our level of physical activity and training doesn’t come at the expense of other areas of our health, wellbeing and happiness.

If you have anxiety, it is important to know that short-term/acute anxiety responds better to exercise than chronic/severe anxiety, especially when looking specifically at high intensity training. People that experience the negative physical and mental health symptoms that come from over-training can often exhibit other traits such as perfectionist tendencies, type-A personality and anxiety. The consequences of over-training can include reduced cardiovascular health, dysfunction of vital organs, bone damage, reproductive issues and breakdown of muscle fibre, as well as other negative impacts such as reduced muscle development, injury and time away from other important things in your life.

It has been found that participating in exercise more than 25 times per month or for longer than 90 minutes per session, can be associated with having worse mental health and have recorded in some cases, worse mental health then those who do not exercise at all.

So how do you know if you are overtraining or if it is having a negative effect on your mental health:

  • Feeling yourself ‘body checking’ or comparing to others at the gym
  • Feeling anxious, guilty or frustrated when you don’t go to the gym or when you have to miss a session e.g., not taking days off
  • Feeling compelled and obliged to exercise rather than feeling enjoyment or motivation
  • Your exercise and fitness goals are primarily based on aesthetics not health, and you’re basing your self-worth on exercise achievements/body shape
  • Experiencing an unexplained decline in physical performance
  • Exercise impacting other things in your life – feeling fatigued over the day, withdrawing from social interaction or feeling more anxious/stressed. One important consideration is being able to identify when you are feeling stressed and when you are feeling anxious. Exercise, particularly high intensity exercise, can be great for stress but be harmful for severe anxiety
  • Experiencing depressive symptoms - Overtraining can generate psychological symptoms that mimic depression – low motivation, low mood, feeling isolated in social interaction, high levels of self-critique.
  • Finding yourself exercising due to what you ate, because you have been “lazy” or for avoidance of other tasks.
  • Exercise despite being sick/injured or bad weather
  • Menstrual dysfunction
  • Regimented Exercise– doing the same exercise every week, hesitant to try something new or drop any sessions.
  • You are not equating more exercise to more food and more recovery

Even exercising intensely for more than one hour a day or on more than one occasion per day can be considered excessively (if not appropriately supported).


So, if some of these apply to me, how can I improve this?

  • Chat to a health professional – a staff member at your gym that you trust is a great place to start.
  • Get personalised support – from a Psychologist, Dietitian or Exercise professional (or all 3!). Receiving guidance and coaching from a professional is invaluable in being able to address what is and isn't working. A professional can assist you with a treatment plan that includes not only what sessions you should do and how to adequately fuel for your training, but also how to manage the cognitive and emotional difficulties that can arise from a change in routine.
  • Remind yourself when you are in the gym, you are comparing yourself to the top 1% of people who have also made it to the gym that day. Although, we would love it to be – this is not the normal for the everyday Australian, therefore, know that you are doing enough.
  • Remind yourself that exercise does assist your mental health, however, it is not a replacement for seeking professional help.
  • Notice how you are feeling leaving the gym – are you leaving feeling revitalised or will you leave mentally exhausted and depleted? Is feeling physically exhausted a given after a session? Did the session alleviate stress or did it produce more?
  • Set a goal for your training – a run time, a certain weight on the bar, sign up for an event etc. However, ensure that it is a goal that actually supports your health.
  • Support your training – understand the connection between sleep and recovery with mental fatigue and cognitive exhaustion. There is a huge amount of research to show the effects of mental fatigue on physical performance. If work is stressful, or there is a lot going on in your personal life, or you are simply feeling overwhelmed, you may experience a decline in endurance, decreased power output and higher perceived exertion
  • Reflect on the fact that exercise and mental health are not black and white issues, and they both exist on a continuum. Just because HIIT may have helped your mental health on one day you were stressed and anxious, does not mean that will work again. There are many, many variables that come into play when addressing the impact that exercise will have
  • Remember that movement is there to support and enhance your life and wellbeing. Not harm. Every dimension of health should be supported by movement.

Emma Sanelli