Have you ever sweated through a grueling cycling class and realized that you spent the entire hour comparing your arms to the rider next to you?
So have I. And I’m the instructor.
Or how about feeling frustrated after months of following a strict exercise routine only to find that you’re physically exhausted with few tangible results?
In its best form, exercise can improve everything from health and longevity to mood and self-esteem. In its worst, it can do the opposite.
I’ve boasted the benefits of exercise for years—that’s why I was shocked when recently, a friend disclosed that exercising makes him feel bad about himself. The moment he begins to exercise he’s flooded with criticism and self-judgment, wondering, “Am I even doing this right?”
But then I realized I had been feeling similarly. I caught myself spending entire workouts worried about how I looked and questioning my ability.
Although exercise does produce many benefits, when done with the wrong mindset, it can be harmful rather than helpful.
Exercise should help you feel strong and capable. When you’re constantly playing the comparison game, it’s likely to leave you feeling inadequate. Because my friend worried so much about exercise, whether he chose the right workout for weight loss or how he looked on the bench press, his entire experience was clouded by negativity. Not surprisingly, he had little desire to step into the weight room, knowing a slew of self-bashing thoughts would follow.
We live in a society that glorifies extremes, evidenced by T-shirts proclaiming “Sore Today, Strong Tomorrow” and “fitspiration” images of chiseled abs plastered behind the words “Sweat is Fat Crying.” But the line between pushing your limits and overtraining is dangerously thin. Moodiness, trouble sleeping, chronic fatigue and muscle pain are all signs that you’ve gone too far. Moreover, high cortisol from chronic overtraining can lead to increased body fat, especially around the midsection.
For years, I was the poster child for overtraining. Despite the pain I experienced, I refused to cut back. When I had to reduce my training for health reasons, it was incredibly uncomfortable. I realized that I was training—not to achieve optimal health—but under the belief that I am not good enough as I am. My self-worth was deeply tied to the frequency with which I exercised. The more I exercised, the “better” I was.
Clearly, with the wrong mindset, exercise has a dark side. To avoid these potential consequences, here are some ways to ensure your workout routine supports your overall health and happiness.
Is your only objective for hitting that 6 a.m. boot camp a bikini ready bod? While there’s nothing wrong with physique related goals, using them as your only motivator sets you up for comparison and self-judgment. By incorporating performance or task related goals, like nailing a pull-up or running your first 10K, you can shift the focus away from your weight and reduce harsh self-criticism.
Are you a Victoria’s Secret supermodel? If not, you probably don’t have the genetic gifts to look like one, and it’s incredibly unrealistic to expect to. As frustrating as this is, genetics play a major role in your shape and response to exercise. Coming to terms with your genetic makeup can free you to strive for your personal best, rather than needing to be the best overall.
Once I finally made the decision to stop overtraining, I built a program that included hard and easy training days, with plenty of recovery between. Despite my stubborn belief that more is better, this balanced program led to greater mental and physical results than excessive exercise ever did. If you experience any of the noted effects of overtraining, start incorporating one to two rest days a week to allow your body the time to rebuild and grow stronger.
At its core, exercise should not leave you feeling beat down. It should lift you up. Instead of serving as a comparison point, it should serve as an opportunity for growth. And most importantly, instead of validating your worth, exercise should be one behavior, among many, that honors your inherent value.
You might think that self-criticism motivates you to exercise. Fortunately, this isn’t the case.
“Self-criticism will undermine your efforts in the long run,” says Dr. Kristen Neff, a self-compassion researcher at The University of Texas at Austin. “Over time, it’s going to make you lose faith in yourself.”
What’s more effective, she describes, is a supportive inner coach who accepts you whether you reach your fitness goals or not.
“If you want what’s best for yourself, you’ll encourage yourself to choose healthy behaviors. That is a much more effective long term motivator.”
So breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that you don’t have to berate yourself into compliance when it comes to your exercise routine.