Exercise: How much exercise is too much?
Working out has myriad benefits for our physical and and mental health, but has the rising popularity of the ‘fit lifestyle’ given rise to excessive training regimes — and at what point does exercise become detrimental to our body and mind
While most people find getting in a standard three workouts a week a challenge, Roz Purcell has no such qualms. The Tipperary beauty may be juggling several careers as a blogger, TV presenter, foodie, author and model, but none of it has stopped her spending a hell of a lot of time at the gym.
“I’m always training. For me, it’s what I enjoy doing. I don’t want to sound excessive, but I would train 10 or 11 times a week — a mixture of boxing, yoga, legs, arms and different classes. I’d take a rest day once a fortnight, but if I wake up sore, I’ll take another one,” she told the March issue of VIP Magazine.
“(Mental health) it’s one of the biggest reasons I train. For me, it has such huge benefits. It sounds a bit weird, but I just have so much energy and always feel raring to go. Sometimes if I do miss training, I feel a bit antsy, but I have become a lot better with taking my rest days. I’ve found a good balance for me.”
Many fitness enthusiasts who manage to train with similar regularity to Roz echo this sentiment: that regular exercise does wonders for their mental wellbeing.
Five years ago, Jenni Murphy (34) from Rathfarnham (@jenni_trx on Instagram), was juggling stressful deadlines, sales targets and long hours at a top advertising agency. In a bid to de-stress, she hit the gym. Hard.
“I started to look forward to the gym every day, and even began to plan exercises in advance,” she recalls. “Meanwhile, I was becoming very stressed and negative, and definitely getting ‘the fear’ on Sunday before work, and moping on the bus in the morning. I decided I had to make a change.
In fact, she loved working out so much that she managed to turn it into a whole new career; “I started doing TRX training, which was something all the American people I looked up were doing at the time. I found a class and fell in love with it. Some time later, the studios had ads up for trainees, and I asked them, ‘Would you consider me?’
“I studied to be a trainer at night, worked my day job and was shadowing TRX trainers. But it was so worth it in the end.”
Jenni has also occasionally trained Roz in the past.
“The thing is that Roz might be training 11 times a week, but she’s probably not doing three-hour classes. Besides, she doesn’t care what other people think. The thing is, she has a stressful job, she’s in the public eye, and she wants to get fitness results. But she’s doing it healthily.”
Now a competitive bodybuilder to boot, Jenni is currently in the ‘off-season’, meaning that she has been able to relax more.
“For 18 months, in the run-up to competitions, I was on a really restricted diet and found it hard to socialise,” she recalls. “When I was out with friends and they’d have dinner, I’d have a black coffee. But that was the sacrifice I wanted to make in order to be a world champion. Nowadays, I’ll keep it relatively healthy and just make better food choices. I have the 80-20 rule (where you eat healthy 80pc of the time).
“I do love it though, and, for me, it’s more about my head,” she affirms. “If it’s torture, you’re not doing the right workout. I do short workouts, but others I know who have stressful jobs do heavy deadlifts and say they feel they can take on the world.”
While readying herself for bodybuilding competitions, Jenni’s dedication doesn’t go unnoticed by others.
“People who don’t understand will say, ‘You’re exercising too much’,” she notes. “These are people for whom working out is a bit of a chore. But I’m putting my energy into something effective, and it helps me to deal with situations in life I can’t necessarily control.
“Some people aren’t happy in their lives, and don’t like it when others are happy. I was making some people feel guilty; some people would bring cake in to work and others would remark, ‘Oh, don’t offer any to Jenni, she won’t have it’. There’s sometimes a misunderstanding there of how important it is for your health.”
Of course, the big question is: how much exercise is too much? When does pleasure become pain?
Jenni rightly admits that it’s a relative concept; a daily workout for some might be too high a demand for others; two walks a week might have a person usually used to high-intensity workouts climbing the walls.
“If it’s becoming compulsive, that’s when it’s a problem,” notes Jenni. “Its’ not the training that’s the problem, it’s the attitude to training, and how it affects the rest of your life. The second it affects your relationship, friends, family or job, that’s when you should pull the plug.”
Naturally, the new wave of clean-eating food bloggers and Insta ‘fitspo’ stars have also influenced what many people deem to be an ‘acceptable’ amount of exercise or working out.
“The problem with social media is that it creates unrealistic expectations for the average person and it’s not fair,” notes Jenni. “It’s like, ‘If I’m not eating porridge and just chicken and asparagus, I’m not doing it right’. I’m very cautious about what I post on social media, and never put up unrealistic posts. I have to be so careful with my clients.”
A 2006 study concluded that excessive exercise — ‘exorexia’ if you like — can be defined when its postponement is accompanied by intense guilt or when it’s taken solely to influence changes in your body type. Yet herein lies the rub; to anyone who has dragged themselves out of bed on a Saturday morning for exercise, this no doubt sounds rather familiar.
“It’s hard to put a number of hours per week on it,” says John Lark, a trainer with Sphere Fitness (www.spherefitnessstudio.com). “If someone is addicted to exercise, there’s a 100pc emotional attachment. They can’t live without it.”
Yet the red flags are easily recognised: physical injury, declining performance, feeling burned out, and feeling stale in terms of exercise or loss of motivation.
While many studies have linked exercise addiction with eating disorders, researchers have noticed a pattern among fitness junkies: high levels of perfectionism, focus, determination and persistence. John observes that expectant mums often make for a somewhat unlikely gym addict.
“The baby weight thing tips people one of two ways,” he says. “They either rest up and eat jellies and cakes, or they exercise excessively until they can barely lift their legs. They’re in fear of their body shape changing too much, and I don’t know too many expectant mums who find the middle ground, even if it means putting their developing babies at risk.”
So how to determine whether you simply like the endorphin rush of 20 minutes on a cross-trainer…or are dependent on it?
“Try taking a week off and stick to walking every day,” advises John. “If you can quite happily sit back and relax without any pangs of guilt, then there’s no problem. Personally, I encourage my clients to cut back every fourth or fifth week of exercise, then pick it back up again. If you exercise for the love of the feeling — the social interaction, the fun, the feeling of reward and achievement — then you’re very much on the right track.”
For those that do genuinely enjoy working out, a few precautions need to be taken to safeguard against physical injury and placing stress on the body.
Jenni says: “I’m very careful to take the right supplements and nutrients — fish oils are great for my joints, and I also take BCAA (branched chain amino acids, known for their role in maximising muscle recovery, increasing energy levels and aiding muscle growth).
“I’m also aware of getting enough sleep and I also take a rest day,” she adds. “That way, it won’t take over your life.”
Similarly, Roz has made 11 weekly workouts and a jam-packed career work in her favour: “I’m not afraid of comfort food at all. I train so much that I don’t feel guilty if I eat something gluttonous,” she says.
“I don’t drink a lot, maybe six times a year, but if I’m with other people and we’re all hanging and they’re all ordering pizza, I’ll have some. I don’t always eat clean as I don’t like to deprive myself. I bake four times a week, so I’m always eating cake and buns.”
For more info about Jenni Murphy, see jennimurphyfitness.com; or find her on Instagram @Jenni_trx