True or false? If you get up and go for a run right now, that would be a healthy thing to do.
Let’s say it’s 3 pm on a Saturday, you’re feeling energetic, and it’s a beautiful day. You have a spare 60 minutes to lace up your shoes, take a jog, come home, and shower. Oh, and you actually like running. In this case, sure, running would be a healthy thing to do.
But what if that’s not your current scenario? What if it’s 8 am on a Friday and you need to rush out the door to make it to work on time? In this case, going for a run would probably make you late, and maybe get you fired.
Or, what if you went for a run yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that, and your legs are tired and achy? You’re low-energy, or recovering from a cold, or it’s pouring rain outside, or you just started your period and the cramps are so bad you think you might throw up?
There’s no such thing as a universally “healthy” behavior.Tweet
At any given moment, there are a million and one factors at play in determining whether a given behavior is healthy. I’ve written before on this topic in my post about whether or not vegetables are healthy, and the same principles apply to exercise.
Why do we ‘need to’ exercise, anyway?
The media would like to make us believe that the point of exercising is to burn calories, reduce body fat, and sculpt & chisel our bodies into the smallest possible form. As a functional medicine doctor, I would tell you something quite different.
From a holistic perspective, the purpose of exercise is to maintain a sufficient level of fitness and flexibility to allow you to do everything you want to do in life. Balanced exercise habits also helps support a healthful biochemical environment and reduce mental emotional stress. Except when it doesn’t. With exercise, more isn’t always better.
In this post, we’ll be diving into the details of three key instances in which exercise actually isn’t healthy, meaning it doesn’t promote fitness and flexibility, doesn’t support a healthful biochemical environment, or doesn’t reduce mental emotional stress.
False: Exercise balances your hormones.
Those are just a few examples of hormonal health problems in which exercise not only contributes to the imbalance, but will worsen the problem.
Exercise creates stress in the body. For healthy individuals, this is relatively small and temporary stress response which, when it passes, actually ends up lowering the overall stress in the body. Decreasing stress in this way helps balance out the hormonal systems in the body, supporting thyroid health, insulin sensitivity, fertility, and more.
If a person is suffering from a hormone imbalance, exercise isn’t going to help. It’s going to make it worse. Furthermore, there are other types of conditions in which certain types of exercise exacerbate (or trigger) a person’s genetic predisposition to certain hormone imbalances. For example, with PCOS, heavy weight lifting can worsen elevated androgen levels, which cause symptoms like painful periods, cystic acne, and facial hair growth.
Likewise, individuals with cortisol dysregulation (or allostatic overload) would be harmed from exercising at night; individuals with reactive hypoglycemia benefit from avoiding prolonged periods of exercise, and individuals who have a missing period due to a chronic energy deficit and stress response need to avoid exercise altogether.
False: Exercise promotes fitness.
Injuries, surgery, or poor body mechanics are all reasons that certain types of exercise not only don’t help physical fitness, but worsen it.
Let’s think about the definition of the word “fitness” for a minute. The Encyclopedia of Behavioral Medicine defines fitness as “One’s ability to execute daily activities with optimal performance, endurance, and strength with the management of disease, fatigue, and stress and reduced sedentary behavior.”
I’d paraphrase it to say: Being fit and well means you have the strength and stamina necessary to safely carry out a given task.
If your body is inflamed from an injury or a surgery, adding additional inflammation will worsen your body’s biochemical environment, not help it to become healthier. You also will likely worsen your injury, making you less fit and able to carry out a given task. Even if you aren’t injured, per se, but your body’s biomechanics aren’t optimal (meaning you have poor posture, joint misalignments, or muscle imbalances) certain exercises will add abnormal stress to otherwise healthy joints, making them more prone to injury. Nothing about that is consistent with the goal of safely carrying out a given task. Instead, a person would need to slow down, cut back, rest, recover, and then gradually ease back into an exercise program.
The media’s push to go, go, go is harmful because it feeds us the idea that our #1 goal should be to get back to exercising and pushing ourselves as quickly as possible, otherwise we’re going to gain weight and the world is going to end. But that’s just not true, and often times rest is the healthiest and safest thing for us in any given moment.
False: Exercise relieves stress.
If exercise is a source of stress in your life, it’s not going to lower your stress levels. It will add to them.
All exercise creates a stress response, as I mentioned earlier, and that stress response is short and temporary for otherwise healthy individuals. But what about when it’s not? Outside of a biochemical stress disorder (i.e. chronic stress/allostatic overload) there are a number of lifestyle reasons that obsessing over exercise is going to add stress rather than remove it.
Here are just a few:
- You’re exhausted, and doing a workout is just going to leave you more tired and fatigued than you already were.
- You don’t have time to exercise because your schedule is over-booked and you don’t have any time to rest.
- You aren’t sleeping enough.
- You aren’t eating enough.
- You feel guilty for not exercising, which means that your motivation for movement comes from shame and dissatisfaction with your body.
- You feel the need to ‘earn food’ through exercise.
- You’re already exercising too much.
- You have an eating disorder, struggle with disordered eating, or have a long history of chronic dieting.
Exercise, Dieting, and Disordered Eating
The purpose of exercise isn’t to burn calories, earn food, or change the size and shape of our bodies. However, many of us have a hard time believing this, mainly because we live in a society that is at war with the natural state of a healthy woman.
If you are not an intuitive eater (meaning that you eat according to rules about timing, amount, or type of food) and you’d like to become one, it’s going to be really challenging to learn how to read your bodies cues for hunger, fullness and satisfaction. That’s because the stress response caused by all exercise affects our appetite levels. This often looks like a temporarily suppressed appetite that later turns into ravenousness.
When I work with patients in a clinical setting on this subject, taking a break from exercise is often one of the first things I ask them to do. That’s because healing requires rest, and we can’t do that if we’re constantly pushing ourselves. I took a break from exercise for two years when I was recovering from my eating disorder, and I’ve never been healthier.
With exercise, more isn’t always better.Tweet
A few closing thoughts…
One thing that I want to make clear is that I’m not trying to suggest that all exercise is always unhealthy. Rather, I’m trying to point out the nuance in the argument that more exercise is always better, or that all people need to be exercising. Because that just isn’t true, and when the media makes that claim, it can be really harmful.
It’s actually really dangerous for someone to return to exercise when they aren’t fully healed from an injury (or childbirth.) It actually creates metabolic harm when a person’s hormones are out of balance, and can actually worsen those hormonal imbalances. Likewise, if exercise is a source of stress in your life, especially in the case of disordered eating and a negative relationship with your body, exercise is not a healthy thing to engage in! In many cases, not exercising is the healthiest thing for a person to do.