Author: Nancy Heiber, RD and Michael E. Berrett, PhD
Intuition is that inner sense which can guide our lives and what we do, not only towards external and sought after goals, but also towards inner peace and harmony. Living by intuition requires noticing, listening, understanding, and then following that inner sense and voice.
You have heard of intuitive living and intuitive eating. How about intuitive exercise?
Not only is intuitive exercise possible, but it is critical, especially for those recovering from compulsive exercising, eating disorders and related addictions. Without intuitive guidance, exercise can become a part of an addictive and destructive cycle. This cycle can and does lead to physical, emotional, and spiritual damage. Intuitive exercise, on the other hand, can improve life.
Exercise has been shown to increase energy, lower stress, increase restful sleep, improve bone strength, resistance to illness, and improve health generally. Proper exercise, done in moderation, and with intuition, is an important and healthy part of life, from the development of coordination in the toddler, to strengthening cardiac function in the elderly. Proper exercise can help ward off obesity, increase one’s ability to participate in and enjoy recreation, and can strengthen not only muscles, but the autoimmune system as well. Exercise can ward off the debilitating effects of daily life stress. It can lead to increased awareness and acceptance of one’s body and improve one’s physical and emotional self-confidence. There are positive benefits of exercise, while the decision to underexercise brings unwanted consequences.
Then there’s the problem of exercising too much!
A little exercise is good for you, so a lot must be even better, right? Well, not always. At a particular point the body says “enough is enough,” and the results of not listening can be devastating. There are also real and present dangers in overexercising. The most common risk in exercising is injury to muscles and joints. This usually happens from exercising too rigorously, or for too long. Overexercise can cause injuries to legs, feet, and joints of the body. Muscle fibers are fatigued and stressed during exercise, and are susceptible to damage when overexercised. Heart damage is also a real possibility in overexercise, especially when a person is not eating enough to sustain the workout.
The dangers of overexercise are very real, and are both physical and mental. Physical dangers include stress fractures, fatigue, exhaustion, tendinitis, damaged or torn muscles, ligaments and tendons, osteoporosis, malnutrition, dehydration, anemia, irregular menstruation, arthritis, and heart problems.
The emotional and mental dangers of overexercise can be just as debilitating. These include potential development of obsessive compulsive behaviors of differing kinds. Compulsive exercise is an addiction of significant proportion standing alone. Additionally, compulsive exercise can feed or fuel other related obsessive-compulsive disorders including anorexia, bulimia, and related disorders of eating and distorted body image. Overexercise can also lead to disorders on a continuum of addiction ranging from a life “out of balance” with narrow and inappropriate priorities, to a full-blown obsession with all the consequences of any progressive addiction. An obsession with exercise can also lead to an external versus internal orientation to life, wherein “looks” and performance are all important, and failure to reach or maintain goals becomes a trigger for depression, anxiety, and feelings of “not being good enough.”
How do I know if I, or a loved one is overexercising?
To know if you are overexercising, watch for signs and symptoms. The following are physical signs and symptoms of overtraining and overexercising:
- Pain or pressure in the left or mid-chest area, left neck, shoulder, or arm during or just after exercise (Could indicate a heart problem – stop exercising and contact your doctor.)
- Sudden lightheadedness, cold sweat, pallor or fainting (Could indicate a heart problem – stop exercising and contact your doctor.)
- Decreased performance
- Loss of coordination
- Prolonged physical recovery from exercise period
- Elevated morning heart rate
- Loss of appetite
- Chronic muscle soreness
- Gastrointestinal disturbances
- Decreased ability to ward off infection
- Leaving a workout more exhausted than rejuvenated
There are also important emotional, mental, and behavioral signs of overexercising. They include:
- Exercising for the wrong motives or reasons
- Depression and emotional sensitivity
- Reduced self-esteem
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling that you “can’t get enough” of exercise
- Exercising two hours or more in any one day
- Time to exercise is stolen from work, school and relationships
- Significant feelings of stress and anxiety build when unable to exercise or when routine is disrupted
- The exercise challenge is focused on with grim determination while ignoring bodily symptoms and the intuitive sense that it is time to stop
- Fanaticism or preoccupation with weight, diet, and body form
- Little or no satisfaction gained from accomplishments. No savoring of victory or accomplishment, but instead only a rigid focus on the next new goal.
- Working out even when physically injured
- Thinking often about working out in the time between workouts
- Ignoring that feeling of tiredness which indicates that it’s time to rest
- Ignoring intuitive inner messages from the body, mind, and heart which say “enough”
So what is healthy exercise ?
As in all other areas of life, the core of a healthy exercise program requires some sense of consistency and self-discipline, yet without an obsessive-compulsive drive. The old saying, “moderation in all things,” applies well to exercise and its place in our lives, along with all other important life activities. The following basic guidelines give some structure to consider when implementing a healthy exercise program:
- Exercise because you want to – not because you feel that you have to.
- Do exercise activities that you enjoy – not exercises that you dislike.
- Include a variety of exercise activities – don’t get in the rut of doing only one or two things.
- Include leisure recreation activities such as bike riding or hiking in the canyon as part of your exercise.
- Stop if it hurts! Do not exercise when your body is in pain, or when fatigued.
- Never exercise with an injury.
- When your body is telling you something – listen!
- Get some physical activity every day, even if it is just walking around the block.
- Drink plenty of water during exercise and afterwards.
- Eat enough to properly fuel your body for the rigors of daily life and exercise.
Remember, exercise feels good and in proper doses can extend life and make life more enjoyable. On the other hand, overexercise can damage your physical ability to participate in some of life’s activities, and through addictive processes, can make you a slave to a compulsion which controls and decreases your true sense of freedom and peace of mind.
In intensive cardio-activity training, exercise 3-5 times per week for periods not longer than 40 minutes. In intensive weight training, exercise 3-5 times per week for periods not longer that 55 minutes. If you are doing both cardio exercise and weight training, make sure you do them for shorter periods of time and at separate times. Many professionals recommend that these activities should be done on separate days. Exercising at a moderate pace for 30 to 60 minutes, 4-5 days per week generally is healthy, while working out seven days per week at maximum intensity is pushing oneself too far and is selfdefeating. Since each of us has different risks and needs, it is best to consider the advice of your family physician or another medical professional who knows you well. Make sure you ask and follow your doctor’s advice if you have an eating disorder and desire to exercise! If you respect the true needs of your body, then your body will most likely take good care of you.
Now, back to “the Intuitive” in exercise.
The above guidelines provide minimal and basic structure. They can provide a “reality check” if we are significantly “off the healthy track.” Each person, however, has individual needs which are best met within a lifestyle of following one’s intuitive sense. An exercise routine should not be made up of arbitrary rules creatively made up in one’s mind. Anyone who says in their inner dialogue, “I must exercise this many days per week for this long,” is most likely not listening to their body nor their internal intuitive messages. Instead of arbitrary rules, a routine best consists of doing a variety of things you enjoy doing when your body feels up to doing them. Exercising for the right reasons will allow you to honor your intuitive sense and can lead to enjoyment, stress relief, and physical and emotional health.
For young children, being an intuitive exerciser is easy. It is their natural way. It is just as natural for them to move when they have an urge to be active, as it is for them to eat when they feel hungry. Children follow their intuitive sense in living until they are incidentally, accidentally, or purposefully taught to ignore their own intuitions. As adolescents and adults, it takes more effort. We have often been taught to live by external rules or to please others, rather than to listen to our internal messages. We can, however, learn to live, eat, and even exercise intuitively again. It will take effort, time, patience, and positive self-encouragement. We may need to start by following the structure provided by our treatment team as we prepare again to become intuitive in exercise. As in intuitive eating, intuitive exercise always begins in a healthy structure given by an expert treatment team. Work towards becoming an intuitive exerciser! It will require desire, commitment, and a willingness to start. The following are a few guidelines towards becoming an intuitive exerciser:
- Spend some quiet and quality time listening to your mind, heart, and body.
- Respond to that self-understanding and approach exercise accordingly.
- Respect your inner needs and consequent internal messages.
- Respect and respond to your body, especially those messages of pain and fatigue.
- Examine your motives for exercise.
- Adjust your exercise as needed and develop the healthiest motives.
- Reserve and make sacred the time you need to take care of yourself.
- Find exercise and physical activities which are enjoyable.
- Remove concepts of fat, calories, and size from your exercise thoughts and language.
- Feed your body what it needs to assure nourishment and adequate fuel to burn.
In summary, understanding always precedes a helpful course of action, and listening always precedes understanding. Learn to listen to your treatment team, and then listen to that quiet inner voice and then follow. This will lead to the development of an exercise plan and lifestyle that will work for you.
Written 2005, Revised July 2014