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How do I know if exercise is helping or hurting?

It’s common knowledge that we can experience a whole host of health gains from exercise and movement. While this is true, when exercise is not well-supported, it has the potential to put our health at risk in a variety of ways.

We live within a culture that defines a specific body shape and size as desirable. In emphasizing weight loss and weight management, diet culture robs us of prioritizing a whole host of health-promoting benefits of movement that are independent of weight, shape and appearance. In the context of diet culture, exercise can become a go-to tool in attempts to change our bodies to align with the cultural beauty ideal.

Exercise might also compromise our health when it becomes the only way to deal with the challenges that life throws our way. It’s a great tool to have in our mental health toolbox, but if it’s the only tool we’re using to support mental health, there may be times when it’s not only unhelpful but also harmful. For example, if we decided to build a house together and only used hammers to tackle the job, we could do a lot of good with our hammers, but there would likely be times when a saw would be more useful or when using hammers might actually do some damage.

An overemphasis on performance might also lead to exercise that compromises our health. In an attempt to get stronger, faster, or to outperform a competitor, we might overexert ourselves, creating an energy imbalance that makes it hard for our bodies to function well and increasing our risk of injury or illness.

Needless to say, the line between supporting and compromising our health can get fuzzy. In fact, “engaging in dysfunctional exercise is one of the strongest predictors of eating disorder relapse, second to social isolation. Exercise is often the first presenting and last remaining symptom of an eating disorder.”*

So is it the amount of time spent exercising that increases risk? Is it the intensity or type of activity? And what’s the role of my mindset, thoughts and beliefs around exercise? Exercise becomes dysfunctional when it limits our ability to function across a variety of areas (ie. physical, social, emotional, cognitive, vocational) that bring meaning to our lives. Here are some ways that dysfunctional exercise** might show up:

Compulsive exercise is described as a felt need, urgency or uncontrollable craving to exercise. The need to exercise and move can feel so strong that it doesn’t feel as though there is a choice to opt out or to take a rest day. If exercise is limited, the distress that is experienced as a result might feel overwhelming and unmanageable. In the context of an eating disorder, it might feel like no amount of exercise will ever be enough to satisfy the need. The eating disorder always wants a little bit more, a little bit longer, or a few more reps. Compensatory exercise is marked by an attempt to compensate for what one has had to eat or drink. It’s the mentality of “exercising off” what has been consumed. In this case, exercise can play a role of punishment for “bad” or “unhealthy” dietary choices. It might also show up as an overemphasis on tracking caloric input and output. Excessive exercise (sometimes referred to as over-exercise) is movement that is in excess of available energy, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Over time, if our bodies are working without sufficient energy (ie.without adequate rest and nutrition), they will start to adapt in an effort to conserve energy, which can result in various signs and symptoms of metabolic dysregulation, such as a bone stress injury, challenges in liver function, nutrient deficiencies, compromised heart function, digestive symptoms, changes in hair/skin or difficulty with cognitive processing.

While these descriptions are helpful for understanding the impact of exercise on our health, they aren’t perfect silos. Dysfunctional exercise might look like a mix of the above categories or have other characteristics. It might impact our relationships, academic focus, and time management. It might create stress, rather than helping to alleviate it.

And while the quantity of exercise is a helpful piece of the picture in determining health risk, quantity on its own doesn’t define dysfunction. Addressing the quality of exercise and movement is essential in determining its health impact. For example, an elite athlete might put in multiple hours at the gym while training for an upcoming competition, while also effectively supporting her performance with nutrition, rest, social engagement and mental health support. And at the same time, someone struggling with dysfunctional exercise might find it difficult to go for a 10-minute walk without harmful thoughts showing up.

Bottom line: if you desire to change the role of exercise in your life or you have concerns that exercise is playing a dysfunctional role, it’s never too early to seek support in creating that change. Reach out to an eating disorder-informed medical or mental health provider to start the conversation. And know that it’s possible and worth the effort to create and restore beneficial rhythms with exercise and movement.

*Source: “What Is Dysfunctional Exercise.” SEES, **Dysfunctional exercise is not currently accepted as a mental disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV).


Lisa DeKam, PT is a physical therapist and the co-founder of The Axia Project, an organization dedicated to helping women know the truth that her worth is not based off the appearance of her body.

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Learn more about The Axia Project on Instagram @theaxiaproject or on their website

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