Women and Overtraining: When Exercise Destroys Your Health: We are bombarded with images of women with rock-hard-bodies. Whether it be in magazines, TV commercials, movie screens, or social media, there appears to be a cultural obsession with being as lean as possible. “Strong is the new sexy,” they say. But, what impact is this relatively new extreme fitness trend having on women’s health and longevity? Today we are exploring the ways in which overdoing it with fitness can actually be detrimental to the body as well as the mind.
Women and Overtraining: Rock Hard Bodies Is “The New Sexy”
The sought after female aesthetic has varied wildly over the years. Sculptures found of women in the paleolithic era highlighted the very curvaceous female figures, a sign of fertility. In Ancient Greece, artists portrayed the ideal woman with larger hips, full breasts, and a soft stomach. Early Renaissance women were depicted with pale skin, round faces, curvy hips. The Elizabethan Era continued this trend, now marking that being thin was actually a reflection of poverty, and that the wealthy had enough resources to feed their rounder figures.
As the years go by, the idealized ‘perfect body’ ebbs and flows, with the very thin post-war women of the 1920’s to the curvaceous hourglass looks of the 1950s and 60s (like Marilyn Monroe). Needless to say, the ‘ideal’ body has been highly dependent on the times, and in no way do the bodies gracing the covers of modern magazines epitomize what it means to be beautiful and especially not what it means to be healthy.
Today, the flavor of the day is a muscular build, and overall lean physique (except maybe for the behind!). Now let’s get real: this is not everyone’s dream aesthetic, nor is any sort of physical appearance a universal goal. Modern times have also seen a huge movement towards body-positivity to accept all shapes an sizes, but this movement is a rebellion against the underlying reality that the mainstream media is still very much rooted in the tight and toned look.
But I Thought Exercise Was Healthy?
Exercise can without a doubt be healthy, and in fact, movement is a natural requirement for human health. Pre-dating the industrial revolution and modern sedentary lifestyle-jobs, our ancestors were moving all day long. Men hunted, women gathered, families spent all day on the farm, processing food, running after children, running away from predators. This need for movement cannot be understated. The problem lies in the extreme nature of today’s exercise culture, and the havoc it is wreaking on women’s health. The dose makes the poison.
The Impact of Over-Training on the Female Body
This modern extremist fitness trend affects men’s health too. We see low or non-existing libido and hormonal imbalances in both parties, but the problem does tend to impact women more seriously. Men and women’s bodies operate differently, predominantly due to the reproductive nature of the female body. Bearing children is no small feat, and the hormonal fluctuations that occur in women’s bodies each month is a divine symphony that requires harmony and balance.
Women and Overtraining: The Menstrual Cycle
Stress plays a huge role in the menstrual cycle in many ways. Most obviously, ovulation is delayed during periods of high-stress. The body intelligently knows that pregnancy isn’t wise if the body is in fight-or-flight, and delayed ovulation means no chance of conception. The body cannot distinguish between physical, emotional, or environmental stress, and in today’s world, there is a whole lot of all of the above.
Losing your period is called amenorrhea, and although it’s not caused exclusively by over-exercising, it is oftentimes the culprit. Too much energy expenditure and not enough rest and nutrients can turn off this reproductive function in many women. Menstruation is considered a ‘non-essential’ function during periods of high stress, but the problems don’t stop there. Amenorrhea is often paired with the cessation of other functions such as building bone, hair, skin, and nails. Over time, this can lead to chronic and longterm health problems like osteoporosis.
The impact of over-exercising in women is compounded by a typical chronic nutrient-deficient or a calorie-restricted diet. For a healthy menstrual cycle, it is imperative that rigorous exercise is balanced with adequate rest, and that nourishing the body be a priority too.
Women and Overtraining: Adrenal Fatigue
Your adrenals are small glands that live above your kidneys. These glands play a huge role in the way your body responds to stress, by producing hormones like cortisol, DHEA, and norepinephrine. When constantly working, our adrenals lose the ability to respond to stress effectively, which can result in serious health consequences. For women, a common consequence of depleted adrenals is estrogen dominance, and a laundry list of symptoms including poor sleep quality, low or no libido, drooping skin, wrinkles, and weight-loss resistance.
Adrenal fatigue is a long time coming, but when it hits, the symptoms can take a very long time to reverse. Adrenal fatigue often sneaks up on you, due to an over-caffeinated culture. Caffeine can prop you up and masque the signs of adrenal fatigue, like waking up tired, irritability, and mood swings. You often hear people say they’re not themselves until they have their morning cup of coffee, which is a red flag that adrenal fatigue is on the way.
Women and Overtraining: Mental Health
There’s no doubt exercise has been proven to be one of the best natural solutions for many mental health disorders. But more of a good thing isn’t always better. In terms of exercise, overdoing it can lead to an unhealthy obsessive-compulsive disorder. When anxiety kicks in due to a missed workout, or the thought of taking a whole week off from fitness routines to relax with the family seems unfathomable… it’s time to take a step back and reassess your relationship with exercise.
Exercise can also become an obsession that interferes with other aspects of life. Family time and having a social life are strong predictors of longevity, so making time for the community should be paramount if you care about your health. Be hyper-vigilant if exercise takes constant precedence over time with loved ones, and consider scaling it back.
Finally, too much exercise can induce body dysmorphia, a psychological disorder that causes a constant sense of defect in your physical features. By spending too much time obsessing about physique, you can actually lose touch with the reality of your appearance and fall into the trap of never being good enough. The quest for the perfect body can actually lead to very serious mental health problems, and interim lead to physical health problems too.
Symptoms of Over-Exercising
When women are overtraining, the body can no longer keep up with the degree of physical activity being exerted on it, certain symptoms will ensue. These symptoms are warning signs, and unless you learn to find balance, more problematic chronic illness like chronic fatigue and infertility may ensue. Ideally, you want to catch yourself before any of these symptoms manifest themselves in your life, and a good way to do that is to examine your personal relationship with exercise. Only you truly know if your habits are truly serving your health, or not.
Some of the symptoms of overtraining include:
- Weight-loss plateau
- Low or no libido
- Irregular or non-existent menstrual cycle
- Mood swings or irritability
- Poor sleep
- Waking up tired
- Overuse injuries
- Legs feel heavy
- Frequently fall sick or have a hard time recovering from minor illnesses
- Slow recovery from workouts
- Feeling unmotivated or lethargic
- Exercise recovery has slowed down
It’s important to note that many women can get away with overtraining for a long time before they notice (or admit to) any harmful symptoms related to over-exercising. This can be due to many factors from over-caffeinating to simply denial. We’ve been so primed to think that this tight and toned goal is the pinnacle of health that the closer we get, the less we want to admit it might actually be harming our health.
Movement As Medicine
We aren’t suggesting that you stop exercising altogether, or even putting down the weights. Weight lifting for women has been shown to be extremely beneficial especially as we age. This doesn’t, however, mean you should be lifting weights six times per week for two hours at a time.
Movement and exercise are not the same things. All exercise is movement, but not all movement is exercise. Our ancestors moved all day long, but this didn’t look like the 60-90 minutes that most people spend in the gym doing repetitive movements. Movement is more dynamic, and it comes naturally. Movement is not scheduled. There are many ways to move throughout your day to stay fit and healthy, that won’t take a toll on your physical and mental health or your longevity.
Examples of healthy movement include:
- Walking to the grocery store and shopping for groceries
- Playing with your kids outside
- Chopping firewood
- Mowing the lawn
- Folding laundry
- Cleaning cobwebs from the ceiling
- Swimming in the ocean
- Climbing a tree
- Going for a hike
- Walking the dog
- Bending over to pick up toys
- Having a picnic
- Giving a piggyback
Women can get movement in without overtraining. There are many ways of moving that also nourish and calm the body too. Striking a balance between the sweat-inducing workouts and the more restorative forms of exercise and movement can support your overall health, body composition, and longevity.
Examples of restorative movement include:
- Tai Chi
- Yin yoga
- Restorative yoga
Our modern culture glorifies extreme fitness and super lean bodies.
Although this image has taken over the media and has become an ideal or goal for many women, the results might actually be harmful to the body. Women, in particular, are affected by over-exercising due to their hormones, and this can have a detrimental impact on health and longevity. Finding a balance between exertion and rest is key, which can happen when more movement is incorporated into your lifestyle as opposed to simply exercise. Restorative movements are also a great tool to re-establish balance and promote whole-body health.
Take a good hard look at your habits and your relationship with your body, health, and exercise. Examine the feelings you have and become aware that this obsession with ‘health’ might actually be one of the most unhealthy habits that you have. Strive for balance, and learn to incorporate more holistic, playful, and natural forms of movement into your life.
Speaking of women’s health issues and psychological challenges…
New research is emerging every day about the psychological damage being done to women by all forms of media. For instance, did you know that 30 minutes on Instagram is all it takes to feel bad about yourself? YEP—the UK’s Royal Society for Public Health found that Instagram was the most damaging social network for mental health. Another survey found it increased feelings of “depression and loneliness.” And with even more unrealistic “ripped” expectations being placed on women, it’s only getting worse.
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