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Extreme Exercise

July 10, 2017 by Francesca Baker 

Once upon a time if you ate a side salad with you meals, walked to work, took a weekly yoga class and perhaps popped to the gym every now and then, you were lauded as fit and healthy. But today, in our culture of never enough, being moderately fit and healthy is not enough.

Marathons are so passé. Now you have to be doing ultra marathons. Just a run – what about a course through a muddy and wet obstacle course? Hatha yoga is sneered at by Bikram converts. Swimmers must be triathletes. We have fad workouts actually called ‘Insanity.’ The same is true of food. Having extra vegetables and saying no to a second helping of dessert has been eschewed in favour of cleanses, detoxes, fasting and ‘intolerances’ to eliminatinge certain food groups from the diet.

Because whilst no one can deny the benefits of regular exercise and a balanced diet, such extremes are causing more harm than good. The word is balance. Pushing the body beyond its comfort zone can result in torn muscle, fatigue, sleeplessness, blood poisoning, fractures or heart damage, according to a 2015 research review from the Mayo Clinic Proceedings. That doesn’t sound very healthy.

Signing up to an extreme challenge can take over your life, requiring time-intensive and physically demanding schedules of training, meaning that the regime can soon become an energy drain, diverting from a social life and relationships, as well as taking its toll on the body. It’s worth reflecting on whether we even really need to be super fit, especially if this punishing routine comes at the expense of a reduced enjoyment of life. Many fitness fanatics, endurance athletes and competitive bodybuilders have spoken out about their lack of social life, loss of libido, and obsessive focus.

A lot comes down to the modern world’s culture of ‘never enough.’ And with this ‘never enough’ comes polarised thinking. If we’re never fit enough, healthy enough, pushing ourselves enough, we’re not good enough. As well as the physical impact, the emotional stressors are damaging. There is a dangerous appeal to the innate human desire of wanting to belong. The CrossFit movement, which proposes a regime for forging ‘elite fitness’ through short, intense exercises, says on their website that their aim is ‘to build a program that will best prepare trainees for any physical contingency — not only for the unknown, but for the unknowable.’ The language almost veers on religious, implying a knowledge of a future that mere mortals will not be able to face, unless they join the enlightened. We’re no longer running from predators or hunting our food – so why race around pretending we are?

There seems to be a bell curve when it comes to the right amount of activity to do. Numerous studies have found that those undertaking strenuous activity have similar levels of health risks as those who are sedentary. One of the biggest dangers is a sudden jump in exercise; people who have not moved since school PE lessons but are suddenly signing up for events are particularly at risk.Particularly rigorous exercise can actually hinder health goals and weight loss as it strains an already strained system, spiking cortisol and slowing metabolism. The body also adapts quickly, meaning it becomes necessary to keep pushing the body harder in order to continue seeing results.

As well as all this, physical activity increases levels of dopamine in the body – the feel good hormone – and as such can become addictive. Any addiction is dangerous. If individuals feel that exercise is a compulsion, regardless of whether the output is considered healthy in some circles , it is a problem. People who have a healthy attitude to fitness and food, feel in control, rather than being controlled by it.

Ultimately, to be healthy demands a holistic approach, taking into account physical, emotional and lifestyle goals and factors is crucial. Being good to yourself can mean curling up with a good book and a glass of wine. It seems that the old maxim, even if not glamorous or thrilling, is still true: everything in moderation.