Mental Health Month: How to recognise when exercise & healthy eating actually becomes unhealthy.

Exercising regularly and eating well are wise lifestyle choices with profound benefits for our physical and mental health – but could it be possible for these intrinsically positive behaviours to actually become detrimental to our wellbeing? It may surprise you to know that the answer is a resounding: yes. Exercise is certainly good for us. Eating well is certainly good for us. But when we begin to develop unhealthy relationships with these fundamentally healthy behaviours, they're not good for us at all – in fact, they have the potential to cause us significant physical and mental harm.

Unhealthy relationships with exercise and otherwise healthy eating choices are much more common than we might think, and often go hand in hand. 1 in 10 of us will experience a harmful relationship with exercise and 1 in 6 of us will develop disordered eating in our lifetimes – which means that we are more likely to develop a harmful relationship with exercise or healthy eating than we are to be an only child, to eat a vegetarian diet, or to have a heart attack.

But what’s the big deal – it’s not as though exercise and healthy eating could really be that bad for us (could it)?

Exercise and ‘healthy’ eating can actually become very harmful for our physical and mental health if we are engaging with these behaviours in an unbalanced way. Some of the consequences of unhealthy exercise and eating behaviours can include:

  • cardiovascular disease,

  • organ damage,

  • bone density loss,

  • chronic pain and fatigue,

  • delayed recovery and diminished returns from training,

  • metabolic and hormonal disruption,

  • increased injury and illness,

  • depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions;

… all of which can severely disrupt our physical and mental health, and be terribly detrimental to our quality of life. Given that we usually develop exercise and healthy eating habits because we want to look after ourselves and feel well, it just makes sense that we keep an eye out for the warning signs that our relationships with these behaviours could be at risk of tipping over into harmful territory.

How can we tell the difference between healthy and unhealthy exercise and eating behaviours?

It can be tricky to identify unhealthy exercise and eating behaviours, and to recognise when we may need some help re-framing our approach to these activities. We usually receive internal validation and praise or admiration from others when we work out and make conscious eating choices, which can make it harder for us to look clearly at these behaviours and to identify when our ostensibly healthy choices may have become unbalanced and potentially harmful. We may have built part of our identity or sense of self-worth around our exercise and eating choices, and therefore feel reluctant to examine these behaviours with a critical eye. However, being willing to look clearly at the way that we engage with exercise and eating has the potential to greatly enhance our wellbeing, and is well worth doing.

It is important to know that there is no clear-cut formula for exactly what constitutes a healthy relationship to exercise and eating – training every day and keeping a food diary can be appropriate for some people, and detrimental for others. What is more significant is assessing the health of our relationships with exercise and eating, and to assess whether these relationships and the behaviours they give rise to are enhancing or detracting from our overall wellbeing.

What are some of the signs that can indicate an unhealthy relationship with exercise?

  • using exercise as a punishment for eating or for permission to eat,

  • exercising inappropriately despite fatigue, illness or injury,

  • a rigid and inflexible exercise routine,

  • experiencing guilt, distress, anxiety or irritability if unable to exercise,

  • an exercise routine that compromises relationships, social life and other activities,

  • an unwillingness or anxiety about taking rest days,

  • excessive time spent thinking about exercise.

You can find more information about disordered exercise here, and complete a quick online self-assessment for the signs of an unhealthy relationship with exercise here.

What are some of the signs that can indicate an unhealthy relationship with eating?

  • restrictive dieting,

  • fasting and/or skipping meals,

  • cutting out major food groups,

  • binge eating,

  • excessive time spent thinking about food, calories, weight and/or shape,

  • experiencing guilt, distress or anxiety about food,

  • using diet pills,

  • misusing laxatives, diuretics and/or enemas.

Orthorexia is a particular type of unhealthy relationship with eating that is characterized by an obsession with eating healthy foods, and is increasingly being recognized by experts as a serious mental health condition. Some of the signs that can indicate an orthorexic relationship with food are:

  • excessive thoughts about and focus on eating the ‘right’ foods,

  • anxiety about food choices – particularly the perceived purity or cleanliness of foods,

  • feelings of guilt and shame after eating foods that are perceived to be impure or incorrect, &

  • heightened sense of self worth after eating foods that are perceived to be pure, clean or correct.

You can find more information about disordered eating here, and more information about orthorexia here. You can complete a quick online self-assessment for signs of disordered eating here, and fill out a checklist about someone else that you are concerned about here.

Where can we find support for building healthy relationships with exercise and eating?

If we suspect that we or someone we know may be experiencing an unhealthy relationship with exercise or eating, it is important to know that there is plenty of help available, and that it is absolutely possible to rebuild healthy relationships with these activities and experience renewed wellbeing. Some of the sources for help and support are:

Other resources:

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