Is Your Gym Routine Hurting Your Mental Health? Here's How to Tell

Yes, exercise is good for both mind and body. But there's a line you shouldn't cross.

Taylor Leamey Senior Writer
Taylor Leamey writes about all things wellness, specializing in mental health, sleep and nutrition coverage. She has invested hundreds of hours into studying and researching sleep and holds a Certified Sleep Science Coach certification from the Spencer Institute. Not to mention the years she spent studying mental health fundamentals while earning her bachelor's degrees in both Psychology and Sociology. She is also a Certified Stress Management Coach.
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Taylor Leamey
4 min read
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Exercise is a good thing. It has several mental health benefits, like relieving anxiety and improving your mood. But sometimes, things can sour. We've all been there with fitness -- big goals without the means to meet them. Having an exercise routine that isn't sustainable can negatively impact all parts of your life, including your mental well-being. 

Regular self-check-ins and watching for signs of dependency will ensure fitness stays a positive part of your life. Here are three signs that your relationship with your exercise routine is doing more harm than good. 

How exercise affects physical and mental health

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Physical movement is a crucial part of wellness, no matter what form it takes. The last thing we want to do is convince you otherwise. By integrating exercise into your lifestyle, you can lower your risk of developing health issues like heart attacks, high blood pressure, chronic inflammation and Type 2 diabetes.

Beyond your body, exercise can have positive impacts on your mental health, too. You can use exercise and workouts to manage everyday stressors and navigate emotions. 

"Exercise decreases anxiety, increases optimism and leads to an improved quality of life," says L. Kevin Chapman, a licensed clinical psychologist. "For significant emotional symptoms, exercise is a useful addition to therapy, not a useful replacement. For general stress, exercise is terrific." 

There are many ways that exercise helps your mental health: It boosts your mood and confidence, can provide a way to spend time with friendsrelieves stress by releasing endorphins and keeps you energized during the day

However, working out isn't the only tool you should use to improve your mental health. 

Signs your gym habit might be unhealthy

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In some cases, there's a limit to what a healthy relationship with the gym can look like. A dependence on the gym as a coping mechanism can negatively impact your mental health.

"Exercise can also be a form of emotional avoidance if done in excess," Chapman says. "In other words, if I use exercise or any other 'prosocial' behavior to avoid the experience of anxiety, this could reinforce the idea that anxiety is dangerous and the only way I can manage anxiety is through exercise." 

Sometimes, it's hard to spot. And it can even happen without you even noticing. Here are a few warning signs that your relationship with exercise might be harmful.

1. You never take breaks

One sign that your relationship with exercise is in trouble is if you overtrain or push yourself too far -- even during illness or injuries. Overtraining syndrome is common among gymgoers who push themselves through a string of high-intensity workouts without adequate rest and recovery time. 

Not only does this put significant strain on your body, but depriving your body of energy can lead to dysfunctional adaptations in your metabolism, immune system and hormones. 

It's essential to give your body the chance to rest. Yes, consistency is important, but so is giving your body a break. Rest days give your body time to recover and your muscles time to grow. Your rest days may involve gentle stretching or binge-watching your favorite TV show -- whatever works for you.

2. You feel guilty if you don't go to the gym

Even the most consistent exerciser misses days -- sometimes life gets in the way, or we're just not up to it. And that's fine. We shouldn't feel guilt or anxiety, nor overestimate the negative consequences of missing a workout. 

When you think you're not doing enough to meet the goals you set for yourself or the social standards set for you, you may feel shame and guilt about not reaching your goals. Low levels of this are natural -- we're human. But ongoing or severe guilt is cause for concern. Breaking the cycle of feeling bad if you miss the gym will help you build a healthier relationship with fitness.

3. You're using exercise to control your body

If you're worried that your relationship with exercise might be leaning toward problematic, think about why you're exercising. Are you trying to be healthier? Or are you only going in hopes of changing your body? 

If you use the gym to control your body, it can become an obsession that may cause or increase appearance anxiety, exercise addiction and body dysmorphia. A sign of this could be exercising more or increasing your workout to make up for the food you've eaten. It's OK to have weight loss goals -- they just need to be realistic and achievable for your body. Remember that food is important, and it's not something we have to make up for.

Exercise is not a replacement for therapy

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Many people use exercise as a way to relieve anxiety. For everyday stressors, this is perfectly fine and even encouraged. But it can become risky if your exercise habits are the only coping method for dealing with your problems. 

Ask yourself if this behavior is making you more distressed or impairing your functioning in any way. If the answer is yes, then according to Chapman, "that implies that additional assistance may be in order."

Sometimes, the best option is to skip the personal trainer and seek professional help to cope with challenges in life. Some problems need real mental health support to address and you should feel empowered to get it -- in whatever form works for you, whether online or in person

If you think your relationship with exercise is becoming unhealthy, try to work through any negative association you have with yourself. You'll be happier and healthier in the long run.

Watch this: Apple Fitness Plus adds new workout routines
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.