OpinionAcknowledging the intricate relationship between physical and mental health

While exercising is seen as a form of "self care" and a healthy practice, there are ways in which it can be unhealthy that are important to address before it's too late
Dana NicholsFebruary 19, 20201035 min
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Illustration by Andrea Nebhut

In a time where diet culture is found everywhere and fitness gurus flood our Instagram explore page, it’s easy to get swept up in the overwhelming pressure to be as physically “fit” as possible. However, our willingness to attain what we consider to be a fitness level indicative of good health (no matter the cost) has the ability to lead us astray and instead take us down a path of self-destruction.

Having struggled time and time again to get into a workout routine, I deem it important to identify and address unhealthy patterns early-on. Although easier said than done, solving problems in your practices before they become serious is better than waiting until after it’s too late to make a change.

I began developing a workout routine as a form of self-care. It hadn’t taken long for splurging on houseplants to make a dent in my wallet, and in the new year, I saw exercise as my new, more affordable form of self-care.

Because I was exercising in the name of self-care, I ignored the negative effects that these activities were having on my mind and body and instead convinced myself that they were just a part of the process. Having dealt with disordered eating for the majority of my life, adding exercise into my daily routine for the first time since graduating from high school was dangerous, seeing as the two have an intricate relationship.

When I first started, I didn’t spend much time considering the possible threat to my mental health that I was introducing into my life. However, it took just one trip to my therapist’s office after three weeks straight of working out (yes, with no rest days) to realize that maybe my new form of self-care was becoming far more destructive than empowering.

This is not to say that working out is bad, or that if you have an eating disorder that working out is off-limits; if anything, regular exercise has been shown to improve your mental health. I am only suggesting that when you begin adding a new form of self-care, especially one as complicated as exercise, into your routine, it is important to assess whether or not your practices are being disguised as “healthy” when they’re really not.

How do you know if your “self-care” practices have actually taken a turn for the worse and have begun to do more harm than good? The following are just a few of the signs that you need to reassess your relationship with exercise.

You pay more attention to number of calories burned than how you feel.

When I first got back into exercising regularly, the ability for the treadmill and stationary bike to estimate how many calories I had burned fascinated me. Despite knowing that these measures are not accurate, I relied on them to feel good about my workout; if I did cardio and hadn’t burned a certain number of calories on each machine that I used, I had failed. Within as few as two weeks back into a workout routine, I had begun to calorie-count again.

This is just one of the many signs that your motivations for working out may not be healthy. If you find yourself following this line of thought, one step in the right direction can be reading up on the numerous positive psychological effects of exercising often and using that information to alter what motivates you.

Your post-workout soreness is excruciatingly painful and unbearable.

“No pain, no gain,” while a commonly-touted mantra of fitness enthusiasts, can send you down a one-way road to burnout. In reality, your soreness shouldn’t be causing pain, but rather consist of your muscles being tired (nor should it last longer than three days). Figuring out what your limits are can be tricky; if you find your soreness morphing into pain, take a break from exercising and allot yourself recovery time to take care of your body.

The thought of skipping just one workout fills you with dread.

If you catch yourself struggling with the guilt surrounding not exercising, you are not alone; in fact, the phenomenon has a name: Gym guilt, which is the feeling of guilt for missing a workout or seemingly not doing “enough.” Regardless of what level of activity is achieved in a workout session, it’s easy to walk away feeling like you should be doing more — especially if you have previously or are currently struggling with disordered eating, as many college students are. Seeing as this is not uncommon, many bloggers and columnists have shared their personal experiences balancing mental and physical health in an effort to inspire and encourage others.

And as a result, rest days are not included in your workout routine.

This one specifically took me a while to admit. It wasn’t until after one workout when my calves were so sore that I couldn’t get out of bed that I decided to give my body a break. Burnout, defined as “physical or mental collapse,” is more likely to occur if you don’t take at least one day a week off. This day doesn’t have to be without any physical activity, but it should consist of a much-lower impact routine, whether that means yoga, a (short) hike or binge-watching the entire final season of BoJack Horseman.

Rather than recognizing your own growth, you compare yourself to those around you.

Having a workout buddy is a great way to build a routine and hold yourself accountable. However, it is easy to begin comparing your growth to that of those around you — especially if you and the other person exercise together. To avoid this form of internalized competition, set goals for yourself that don’t involve comparing your progress to others’. This may mean striving to be able to run a 5k by the end of the year, wanting to not be as out of breath once getting to the top of cardiac hill, or simply hoping to get more sleep.

It’s easy to get swept up in the pattern of working out consistently and forget the whole reason that you’re doing it. Everyone exercises for different reasons, and to do so without a goal is a disservice to the progress you’ve made. Although it’s easier said than done, be kind to yourself and celebrate your accomplishments, no matter how big or small.

Dana Nichols

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