Excessive exercise harms mental health

I’ve reported many times on the hazards of excessive exercise. It can damage your joints, heart, kidneys, GI tract, and urinary tract. And now — the other “running shoe” just dropped…

According to a new study published in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet Psychiatry, excessive exercise can also harm mental health.

Of course, we all hear many say excessive exercise improves mental health.

But there’s a biological reason for this discrepancy…

When you subject your body to extreme exercise, you’ll feel pain and distress at first. Your body will then signal your brain to ease up a bit.

But if you persist through the discomfort, you may begin to feel better…euphoric, in fact. “Runner’s high” is an example of this mechanism.

Biologically, it means your body has begun to release feel-good neurotransmitters called endorphins, which act like opiate drugs, blocking out the pain your brain is processing. This survival mechanism evolved as a reaction to extreme physical distress.

And this flood of endorphins is designed to help you extend yourself further than you should, beyond the normal limits of endurance, in a life-threatening situation. So, if you need to fight or run away, this kind of physical response can help you push through the pain and distress to save your life.

But subjecting yourself to this kind of physical distress voluntarily and routinely, in the name of exercise, is not a recipe for good physical health. It will allow damage to your joints, heart, kidneys, and other vital organs over time. And, as I said earlier, it can also harm your mental health…

Excessive exercisers struggle mentally

For this new, rather large study — which included 1.2 million adults from all 50 states — researchers asked participants to estimate how often during the past 30 days they would rate their mental health as “not good,” based on emotional distress, depression, or stress.

They also asked participants how often they had exercised in the past 30 days. They took into account a range of physical activity — from housework and yard work to more strenuous exercise like bicycling and running.

They then looked at the connection between mental health and the amount of physical activity in which each person engaged. (They adjusted for age, ethnicity, socio-economic status, employment, body mass index, physical health, and prior diagnosis of depression.)

And here’s what they discovered:

  • People who exercised every day reported lower levels of optimal mental health.
  • People who engaged in physical activity for just 45 minutes three times per week reported the highest levels of optimal mental health.

A little common sense goes a long way

These findings make a lot of sense to me.

For one, the evidence supports my long-standing view that housework and yardwork should count toward your daily physical activity.

Second, I’ve always wondered about the mental health of men and women who compulsively put in the time and energy, every day, toward abusing their bodies.

In psychiatry, the term is masochism — the practice of seeking pain because it is pleasurable.

The Austrian psychiatrist Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing (1840–1902) coined the term in his book Psychopathia Sexualis, after the descriptions in some of the writings of a 19th-century Austrian aristocrat and utopian writer Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch.

Engaging in outright masochistic practices was once considered a disorder and socially frowned upon. But in the later 20th century, it’s become accepted in the form of excessive exercise. Sadly, ill-informed health practitioners, sports enthusiasts, “life coaches,” personal trainers, and the industries behind them encourage this harmful behavior and frame it as something society should strive to incorporate into their daily lives.

Perhaps I should coin a new term for this pursuit of excessive exercise — and call it “excessercise.

Granted, plenty of evidence links inactivity with poor mental health as well. But researchers note the connection could go both ways. Like the chicken or the egg, they say inactivity can be either a cause, or a result, of poor mental health.

In the end, moderation is the key to everything. Including exercise.

I provide more details on the health benefits of moderation in my upcoming November 2018 issue of my Insiders’ Cures newsletter. So stay tuned! And if you’re not yet a subscriber, no problem. You can get started today, just by clicking here.


“Exercise and mental health: a complex and challenging relationship,” The Lancet Psychiatry, August 9, 2018; 5(9): 692-693