This guest post is by Ben Greenfield of Ben Greenfield Fitness.
There are people who need to exercise, and who absolutely benefit from exercise.
Exercise has rescued obese individuals from a sedentary lifestyle, saved men and women from being ravaged by cardiovascular disease, and allowed for athletes to train their body to perform above and beyond normal capacity.
But exercise also has a dark side - dangerous disadvantages that affect thousands of people each day, and those disadvantages can be summed up in these top 10 reasons exercise is bad for you.
10. Exercise is addictive. Consistent exercise causes the body to produce endorphins, which are hormones secreted by your pituitary gland to block pain, decrease anxiety and create feelings of euphoric happiness. But endorphins are chemically similar to the drug morphine, and so for many people, compulsive exercise can be psychologically addictive. For regular exercisers, and especially for bodybuilders, triathletes, cyclists or marathoners, reducing or stopping exercise suddenly - or even missing one single workout - can result in depression, stress and anxiety. This "mouse on a wheel" attraction to exercise can result in overtraining, missing family obligations and social gatherings because of an intense "need" to exercise, and a worry that fitness will be lost or weight will gain with a day of missed exercise. The pursuit of exercise turns from a way to experience the beauty of nature or spend time with friends to a feeling of going to work or being stuck in a rut.
The Fix: Include at least one day per week in which you do not exercise or your exercise involves no structure (such as playing a new sport). Unless you are paid for your physical performance, if your exercise ever begins to feel like a job, then switch to something new and fresh. Finally, engage in alternate ways to satisfy your brain, including cooking, wine tasting, music, new books, social events, and sex. If you do find yourself addicted to exercise, consider cognitive behavioral therapy, neurofeedback, and in severe cases, pharmaceutical interventions to break the addiction. Exercise addiction is not worth destroying your body and relationships.
9. Exercise Hurts The Heart In one study, British researchers examined 12 runners and rowers with an average age of 57, who each had completed a total of 43 years of consistent training and 178 marathons, 65 ultramarathons, and 4 Ironman triathlons. Half of the athletes showed signs of fibrosis, or scarring of heart tissue, compared to none of age-matched "non-exercising" controls. In addition, wear and tear of years of heavy-duty workouts or lifelong endurance exercise can weaken heart muscles - predisposing you to a condition called "ventricular arrhythmia" in which the heart beats erratically. This is probably due to damage to the right chamber of the heart, which can disrupt normal heart rate and rhythm, and this has literally put an end to the career of several pro endurance athletes, who engage in the type of training necessary for this problem to occur.
The Fix: Avoid excessive exercise, especially a combination of high intensity and high volume workouts. If you do find yourself in this situation, such as during the build-up to an Ironman triathlon, then engage in good warm-ups and proper cool-downs after each workout, and include at least one total recovery day. As much as possible, try to avoid competing in events such as an Ironman triathlon or ultra-marathon more than once per year.
8. Exercise is associated with body perception disorders. Body dysmorphic disorder is a psychological disorder in which you are excessively concerned about a perceived defect in your physical features, such as your arm or leg muscles being to small or your waistline not being thin enough. This can result in heavy, often socially isolated exercise to "repair the defect". Typically, this type of activity can begin in adolescence or early adulthood, but can stay with you your entire life as you strive to achieve or maintain the "perfect body". You may turn to bodybuilding, marathoning, cycling or any other activity which uses the same muscles over and over again to try to hammer away at your perceived defects, even when it comes to the detriment of your joints or health. If you don't have the time to exercise and address what you perceive to be a significant body issue, this can result in depression, social anxiety, and even social phobia, or complete avoidance of being in public, especially where your body might be exposed. Often, you might justify your behavior by believing that you are a serious athlete who can never work too hard or too long at your sport, and this can often lead to excessive and addictive exercise in an attempt to control or lose weight, or sometimes to gain muscle or "sculpt" a body part.
The Fix: Learn to accept yourself for who you are, and understand that you are your own worst critic. Unless you're an actor or a model, most other people really don't care what your body looks like, so there's no reason to be embarrassed. Striving for a perfect body is an uphill battle that will always result in failure at some point, probably when you're 60, 70 or 80. There's nothing wrong with looking good, but don't become obsessed about it unless your income depends on it.
7. Exercise can break up families. In 2010, The Wall Street Journal published the article "A Workout Ate My Marriage", describing how couples become increasingly conflicted as a spouse becomes obsessed with a particular exercise goal, such as extreme weight loss or an Ironman triathlon - to the detriment of time spent with family. Often, since the exercise goal can be justified as "noble", it is difficult for a spouse or family member to negotiate with the over-exerciser to spend more time with family.
The Fix: If your goals require you to exercise "excessively", then at least attempt to include family in exercise. Join a gym with free childcare so you and the spouse can exercise together, get a jogging stroller and bicycle trailer, and train indoors with the kids at home so a spouse can go enjoy free time.
6. Exercise can cause diabetes. In my book "Holistic Fueling For Ironman Triathletes", I discuss the propensity for endurance athletes to spend lots of time at coffeeshops and bakeries, engaging in daily chronic consumption of scones, big "healthy" muffins, baked goodies, bagels and artisan breads. Later in the evening, post "long training day", they're back to pastas, lasagnas, spaghettis, pizzas, and more carbohydrate laden foods. And in between these meals is a constant, steady intake of sugar packed energy bars, energy gels, energy drinks and energy chews. Not only do these constantly surging blood sugar levels cause sugar addiction and damage to blood vessels and nerves, but they vastly increase risk for Type II diabetes as the cell surface receptors for insulin eventually become less and less sensitive to elevated insulin levels attempting to shove all the extra sugar into the muscles.
The Fix: Break the sugar addiction. Go two weeks on a low carbohydrate diet, even if it means that exercise levels are decreased. If you're addicted to exercise, changing to a lower carbohydrate intake can be near to impossible, so often, you must FIRST break the exercise addiction and then break the sugar addiction. This may require something as dramatic as an extended vacation to a place where A) you only have access to healthy food and B) do not have your bike, your gym, your swimsuit and goggles, and your running shoes.
5. Exercise destroys diets. Whether you are trying to eat a diet lower in inflammatory compounds to manage an autoimmune disease or cancer, trying to eat a lower calorie diet to lose weight or teach your body to eat less, or trying to switch to a low carbohydrate diet as mentioned earlier, it is very hard to accomplish these nutritional changes while you are engaged in heavy exercise patterns. This is often what causes people to stop healthy lifestyle changes: they get excited about changing their daily routine, eating better, and exercising more, but heavy exercise volume causes food cravings that make it impossible to adjust to a healthy diet, the individual becomes discouraged, and simply quits altogether.
The Fix: In my "REV Diet" book, the first phase (Reboot) involves precise instructions for reducing calories and detoxifying the body, but a key component of that phase is limited exercise significantly while the body learns to burn more fats, use less sugar as a fuel, and become accustomed to the dietary changes. One very good substitute for exercise during this time is yoga, which doesn't burn a significant number of calories, and can be done without derailing the diet.
4. Exercise causes inflammation. Endurance exercise can increase oxygen utilization to over 10 to 20 times the resting state, and all this extra oxygen consumption then increases production of free radicals, which are produced as the oxygen is used to convert energy into ATP for muscle contractions. This enhanced free radical generation causes oxidative damage to muscles and other tissues, and although regular physical exercise can build the antioxidant free radical defense system, intense and high volume exercise can overwhelm these defenses and cause significant free radical damage. Oxidative stress from free radicals damages cellular proteins, membranes and genes and leads to a state of chronic, systemic inflammation. Chronic inflammation is implicated in diseases such as cancer, heart disease, strokes, MS, Alzheimer¹s, Parkinson¹s, premature aging and almost any debilitating, degenerative condition you can name.
The Fix: You can certainly put a band-aid over the problem by consuming a full spectrum antioxidant, but you can only eat so many berries, nuts and dark leafy greens before your stomach gets full. Eventually, you must give your body a break from free radical damage and simply stop exercising so much. Since endurance, aerobic exercise is the biggest culprit for free radical damage, try to limit this type of training. Even in an Ironman build-up, I personally avoid doing anything more than 1 long bike, 1 long swim and 1 long run each week - and everything else is short intense bursts or high intensity interval training, which you can read about in my article "Why You're Wasting Your Time With Long, Slow Aerobic Workouts", which explains why interval exercise can cause lower blood sugar, increased hormonal response to exercise, lower insulin levels and increased fat burning with much, much less time spent exercising.
3. Exercise is stressful. The adrenal glands are two thumb-sized glands sitting atop your kidneys. They produce hormones like norepinephrine, cortisol and DHEA, which allow your body to respond and make adjustments to physical or emotional stress. If the intensity and frequency of the stres becomes too great, then the adrenal glands can begin to become exhausted, and the hormones that they produce can become depleted, resulting in serious imbalances that can cause issue like estrogen dominance in women or testosterone deficiencies in men. The end result is a tired, chronically fatigued individual who has disrupted sleep, low libido, worn-out looking eyes, a set and stressed jawline, and a "skinny fat" body look no matter how much exercise they do. Sound familiar? I just described 90% of the marathoners and Ironman triathletes out there.
The Fix: In addition to incorporating the other fixes I've described such as lowering exercise and enhancing focus on recovery, you can pull yourself out of adrenal exhaustion with complete rest and recovery, avoiding caffeine and central nervous system stimulants, and also by incorporating stress-fighting and cortisol-stabilizing compounds like maca root powder and phosphatidylserine supplements.
2. Exercise damages the joints. I was playing on the trail with my boys yesterday and a man ran by with a scowl across his face. Perhaps his sour disposition was due to the knee brace on his right leg, the exercise strap above his left IT band, and the compression sleeve on his elbow. Despite his body falling to pieces, he was limping along the trail, trying to push his body through a run. Since exercise is addictive, you'll often see endurance athletes trying to push through and continue their chronic repetitive motion training no matter what, often to the continued detriment and breakdown of the body's worn and tired joints. I worked with a sports medicine physician for 3 years, and most endurance athletes that came in were trying to figure out how they could still do their marathon or triathlon even though they had plantar fasciitis, IT band friction syndrome, or shoulder tendonitis. They'd be miserable during their event, but would still do it. While you can certainly be "patched together" with braces, bands, sleeves, and cortisol shots to complete your event, you can end up taking years off your joints. If you like the idea of knee replacements, hip replacements, and not being able to play in the backyard with your grandkids without teeth-gritting pain then strap on that brace and head outside to run through the pain. Otherwise, just stop.
The Fix: Run on a wide variety of running surfaces and terrains, and avoid only exercising in one plane of motion (running, cycling and swimming are typically only "front-to-back" activities). Instead, choose side-to-side motions like tennis, basketball or soccer, and attempt to address a wide range of musculature with your exercise patterns. Know when to identify whether you're just pushing through pain because you simply must exercise, and find something else to do, like read a book.
1. Exercise causes premature aging. In 4 Easy Ways To Ensure Your Skin Doesn't Look Like A Wrinkled Elephant From Your Outdoor Exercise Habits, I describe how to make sure your outdoor, sunny exercise doesn't end up giving you a face like a prune. But excessively wrinkled skin, which is vastly accelerated by the free radical damage mentioned earlier in this article, is not the only reason that people who exercise too much look worn and aged. The heart has a finite number of beats, the back has a finite number of bends, and the cartilage has a finite number of shock absorptions, and once you've reached your quota, your body begins to fail. Combined with a fibrotic heart, worn adrenal glands, and chronic, systemic inflammation, you have the perfect storm for a prematurely aged and broken down body.
The Fix: In my interview with Arthur de Vany, we discuss why an exercise program of sprint interval training and brief, heavy bouts of weight training is probably better for the aging individual. When this type of protocol is combined with very limited amounts of steady endurance exercise, goals like Ironman triathlon or marathoning can still be completed without excessive body aging.
So those are the top 10 reasons why exercise is bad for you. Please don't misinterpret me, because I believe that a lifetime of healthy physical activity is one of the best things you can do for your body and your brain. But a lifetime of indiscriminate, chronic repetitive motion exercise like a rat on a wheel is entirely another matter, and you ought to seriously reconsider your priorities if you are stuck in that rut.
Are you concerned that you may be exercising too much? Or do you think this is all blown way out of proportion? Feel free to leave your comments, questions and feedback below.
TrainingPeaks contributor Ben Greenfield, M.S. PE, NSCA-CPT, CSCS, is recognized as one of the top fitness, triathlon, nutrition and metabolism experts in the nation. To view Ben's available plans on TrainingPeaks, click here. For more information on coaching and training with Ben, check out his website.