Fitness and health are two issues that dominate society today. From diet pills to 24 hour gyms, there is ample opportunity to get fit. However, the idea that a balanced diet and regular exercise is all we need to be fit and healthy isn’t necessarily true: some people could be classed as too fit.
So, as a couch potato myself, I struggle with the idea of exercising too much or even at all. Yet for some, exercise is an addiction that can be taken too far. The images of a washboard stomach, a thigh gap and defined muscles leave us craving, but there are some who believe this “thinness and perfectionist fitness” (as quoted from Dr Robert P. Sprafkin), will lead to people taking whatever measures necessary to achieve the goals that they think they have sought themselves, but are really goals instilled by society and the media. For some people, this obsessive nature combined with a distorted body image leads to a vicious cycle and can lead to disorders such as body dysmorphic disorder and anorexia. How many young girls do you hear about that nearly ruined their bodies forever to try and look like a certain celebrity?
It’s true – and it’s also true that people who are too fit and worry the most about their body are women. Perception and Motor Skills recently published an article which showed the results of a recent study in America. They found that whilst 25% of boys thought they should be thinner, this percentage increased to 69% in girls. As women age and develop, this outlook only persists, with women thinking themselves heavier than they are in a subsequent study whilst men appear more relaxed and comfortable with their bodies. Women exercise due to physical dissatisfaction, whilst with men the reasons are less clear- although competition within both genders is an extremely important factor. Either way, it’s easy to see how an obsession can grow.
In males and females, the science behind being too fit can have a major impact on our long term health. Take fertility, for example. Exercise is something that comes highly recommended for anyone trying for a baby, but problems with the menstrual cycle and hormone balance arise when exercise is taken too far. Recently, there has been an increase in healthy women simply pushing their bodies so much that the brain stops sending a signal to the ovaries to release an egg, thus resulting in decreased fertility. When our body is under intense stress, it can be described as going into a starvation state. Put simply by Karine Chung M.D. (a reproductive endocrinologist), the brain tells the body that now is not the time to be having a baby and the reproductive hormones shut down. In the long term, the hormone imbalance and lack of oestrogen can lead to osteoporosis and heart attacks.
Speaking of the heart, coronary heart disease is also a very serious by-product of over-exercising and putting your body through too much. Coronary heart disease is caused by a build-up of fatty deposits. In most people, these deposits are harmless – though they can cause angina if too much blood flow is restricted. During a heart attack, these deposits crack and cause blood to clot around them and block blood flow to the heart – killing the cardiac cells. A healthy diet and not smoking helps stop the deposits forming in the first place, but extreme and endurance sports need to be approached with caution – and not just because of the safety risks involved with, for example, jumping off a cliff. Len Almond, director of the National Centre for Physical Exercise and Health at Loughborough University details that "extreme physical stress can impose almost impossible situations on the body's ability to recover" and biochemically change the body – perhaps forever.
Our overall fitness is not just defined by our diet and exercise; genetics and family history are also extremely important. However, concentrating on exercising and being “too fit”, it’s time to slow it down when: your daily life and relationships are affected, you become a perfectionist towards your body and you believe that bad things will happen if you don’t work out. Cognitive-behavior therapy, prevention of exposure and sometimes an individual’s techniques are all used to break the vicious spin cycle (get it?). Body image may always be a major societal issue, but from this I would say the main take home-message is to do everything in moderation. (Except when eating Ben and Jerry’s – the word “moderation” completely leaves my vocabulary in that case).