For obvious reasons, most of us are aware of the numerous benefits of physical activity and exercise. These benefits are what the entire fitness industry is built on (but this doesn’t tell the whole story). Fitness (as an industry) is not just black and white … there are fifty shades of grey in between. For the past five decades the industry has marketed the positive side of fitness:
- Preventing metabolic disease
- Improving quality of life
- Looking better and feeling better
Fitness clubs have evolved over the years and have been strategically designed to make exercise more enjoyable and convenient. Some of the most successful fitness facilities are a “one top shop” where people can spend hours in one location and get multiple things done in a single day:
- Get a great workout with the latest in fitness equipment and accessories (i.e., cardio machines, dumbbells and free weights, a wide variety of group classes, one-on-one and small group personal training, and specialty programs)
- Soak in the hot tub or sit in a hot steam room after a long workout
- Grab a quick shower before heading to work in the morning
- Access onsite childcare so you can get your workout in
- Enjoy healthy meals, snacks, and smoothies
- Book a massage appointment or visit a healthcare professional
- Speak with a registered nutritionist or dietician
- Get a quick tan or access salon services
- Access free Wi-Fi
For the 18 percent of Americans who are members, the “gym” has become the third place people spend time at, outside of home and their work (or school). For the price of a membership (which is typically less than the cost of a Starbucks drink per day), you can essentially live in the fitness club for several days at a time!
But, like everything, there is a “dark side” to fitness, which is rarely discussed in today’s popular magazines and websites.
Too Much of a Good Thing …
Although exercise and physical activity is typically good for us, too much of it can be a bad thing. Once someone gets over the initial “love/hate” relationship with exercise (and they start to appreciate how exercise makes them feel and the physical results they can achieve) it is fairly easy to go overboard. Ultimately, this often occurs because of “what” motivates us to exercise.
Body Image and Self-Esteem
An obsession with exercise can often times stems from poor body image and self-esteem, leading to a vicious cycle of not feeling satisfied with how one looks and using exercise to try and achieve that (sometimes unrealistic) result. In fact, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders:
- The female body type that most frequently shows up in most mainstream advertising is possessed by only 5 percent of American women
- 47 percent of fifth through twelfth grade girls say they want to lose weight because of images they’ve seen in magazines or on television.
- Up to 24 million people (male and female) across all age ranges suffer from an eating disorder (the mental illness with the highest mortality rate)
Exercise bulimia, mental illness that is a subset of bulimia (an eating disorder), occurs when an individual exercises with the goal of burning calories to an excessive level that creates a negative health situation. They generally eat a healthy diet but exercise so much that they lose weight and do not hold on to the adequate amount of vitamins and minerals for proper health.
On the flip side, muscle dysmorphia (aka. “megarexia”) is a mental health condition, experienced by both men and women, occurs when someone feels as though their muscles are inadequate in size and strength even though (in reality) that may not be the case. As a result, these individuals have a constant preoccupation with body and muscle size and they engage in excessive or compulsive exercise and weight training, even when injuries are present.
In the end, excessive exercise is motivated by a body image and self-esteem that is low, in addition to unrealistic expectations of what is deemed acceptable by society.
Exercise-Related Injuries & Overtraining
Body image is not the only reason why people train excessively. Some people just enjoy it and want to do it all the time. For example, they exercise regularly because:
- They enjoy the feeling of accomplishment after completing a hard workout
- They have a close circle of friends at the gym (i.e., personal trainer, group fitness instructor, friends who attend the same class, etc.)
- They are trying to reach a personal goal (i.e., running a marathon, completing a triathlon, playing on a competitive team, etc.)
Unfortunately, the more time one spends at the gym the more likely they can get injured. This can be the result of improper form and technique or overtraining.
Typical exercise-related injuries include:
- Pulled muscles
- Sprains, strains
- Breaks and fractures
People who are out of shape, fail to wear protective gear, perform exercise moves improperly or use exercise equipment incorrectly are more likely to get injured.
Overtraining syndrome (OTS) occurs when there is an imbalance between the total volume of training done and the recovery time required for good health. This leads to a decrease in performance that takes more than two or three weeks to return to normal. Overtraining syndrome can be serious because it’s directly responsible for poor physical performance and increased fatigue, both during exercise and in the activities of daily life.
Regardless of where you may fall in the fitness spectrum, awareness is the key to a good experience and overall positive result. Whether you are looking to have more energy, be healthier and maintain good health, or lose weight and change your physique, being aware of where you are starting from, where you want to be, and the safest and most effective way to get there is essential. Treat your fitness journey like taking a road trip across the country … be prepared for the journey, carefully watch the signs along the way , and get there in one piece!