When Exercise Is Doing More Harm Than GoodJan 11, 2023
It’s 2023! Have you made a New Year’s Resolution? It’s highly likely (according to research surveys) that one of those resolutions are health-related, with fitness goals being a common resolution. I’ve personally seen this too. Chris and I owned fitness businesses in the past, and I remember the influx of enquiries at the start of a new year!
But before you rush to join a gym or start training for a half-marathon, a word of caution if you’re showing signs of body burnout (i.e. energy, mood, weight gain, gut and other inflammatory issues).
Firstly, don’t get me wrong. Exercise and moving your body is foundational to good health. However, if you have specific imbalances in your body, you will want to be careful about your choice of exercise, as too much or the wrong kind of exercise could put more stress on your already depleted body systems, which will lead to more inflammation and body breakdown. In this case, exercise could actually do more harm than good.
Key Body Systems To Consider When Exercising
A top question new clients often ask me when we’re getting functional medicine lab test results back is:
“Am I ok to continue (or start) doing CrossFit/Bootcamp/Strength Training/Endurance training, etc?”
I love having the data of lab tests, because I can precisely see what their body can currently tolerate, and if they should back off the exercise, increase it, or switch to a different type of movement program, in order to heal and prevent further damage.
Let me go over some key body systems that are red flags for exercise.
Adrenals & Sex Hormones
If you’re in early stages of adrenal fatigue, adding in exercise is beneficial, as it helps to ‘burn off’ excess cortisol and stress. Movement prescription here would be: get off your butt and exercise daily, especially the aerobic type like a brisk walk, jog, swim, bike ride or gym class.
If adrenal results, however, come back as later stages of adrenal fatigue, and/or your sex hormones are very depleted, adding in huffy-puffy exercise would be an extra stressor that the adrenals will struggle to handle. In this case, you would want to switch to/add in low-intensity movement like walking, swimming, yoga and stretching. And as energy levels and resilience increase, so too would the intensity of exercise increase.
I remember I had a client a few years back who was doing 12 exercise sessions a week and eating low-calorie and strict keto - and yet she continued putting on weight, not to mention felt more fatigued and anxious as ever. Sure enough she had later stages of adrenal fatigue, and when she reduced the intense exercise and supported her adrenals, she not only started to feel better, but actually started losing weight as well.
It’s common knowledge that physical movement can lift mood. You’ve no doubt experienced this after going for a brisk walk along the beach. We’ve even had a few clients claim that exercise worked better than antidepressant medication. And while I’d always encourage incorporating movement into your lifestyle for mental health, over-exercising can lead to neurotransmitter depletion, especially dopamine and adrenaline depletion. Exercise gives you a hit of dopamine (hence the ‘feel-good’ feelings post-exercise), however, exercise can become a dopamine-hit addiction, leading to over-exercising. The more you indulge in addictive habits, the more your dopamine - and other body systems - deplete.
If you have low brain chemicals, especially dopamine and adrenaline, be wise with how you’re using exercise, and get clear on why you’re using it. Is it for health, or has it become an unhealthy addiction?
The mitochondria are stimulated when you move and oxygenate your body and muscle tissue through exercise. In this regard, movement is critical for the health of your mitochondria and production of ATP energy. However, if the mitochondria have become damaged, exercise can cause further damage. You see, when you exercise, your mitochondria produces ATP energy, which also spits off free-radicals. This is a normal physiological response, and your antioxidant nutrients should come along and mop up free-radicals. However, if your body is in a state of inflammation, which is often the case when the mitochondria are damaged, those free-radicals can turn back onto the mitochondria, and cause further damage. This is the number one reason why people feel even more fatigued after exercise, even after a short walk, rather than energised.
If there are mitochondrial issues, you still need to move. Not moving will also cause damage to the mitochondria. The challenge here, then, is to start very easy with your exercise, and gradually increase the intensity overtime, so that you never feel ‘wasted’ after a movement session. We had one client who would always crash after trying to start a new exercise regime. But when she worked with us, and we guided her through graded exercise therapy (a restorative technique in our Ending Body Burnout Method online portal), while also supporting her mitochondria and detox pathways (see below), she was able to build up resilience to exercise slowly, which overtime repaired her chronic fatigue!
Gastroinstestinal (GI) System
If the earlier body systems are burned-out, it’s highly likely there will also be gut issues. My general prescription for exercise when it comes to the gut, is often connected back to what’s going on with the neuroendocrine body systems. For example, if there is adrenal fatigue, cortisol dysfunction will suppress the immune system which can lead to pathogens overgrowing in the gut. It can also lead to leaky gut, as cortisol tears away at the gut lining. In this case, you would want to back-off on intense exercise to help heal both the adrenals and the gut.
But there are specific exercise techniques that can also help with gut function. Your GI system needs to flow in two major ways. First, it needs to produce and secrete digestive juices, to help breakdown foods and keep them moving through your GI tract. And secondly, your gut motility needs to be in tip-top shape, to contract and move food (and microbes) from one end to the other. Diaphragmatic breathing techniques which massage the colon can help stimulate digestion and motility. So too can rebounding (jumping on an exercise trampoline) into her daily exercise regime. We have a range of movement exercises for gut health in our Ending Body Burnout Method online portal.
Our lab tests can identify issues with detox pathways, by looking at important nutrient deficiencies that support detoxification. If specific detox nutrients are depleted, it can make it really hard to repair from workouts, which can lead to muscle damage, injuries and inflammation. If your detox pathways are not doing well, you’ll want to back off from intense exercise while your nutrient stores are being rebuilt.
On the other hand, just like the gut, your detox system needs to ‘move’ to clear nasty toxins and excess hormones from the body. If detox issues are present, I will usually prescribe ‘movement’ techniques to clear toxins efficiently, like increasing water intake to help flush out toxins and excess hormones, getting sweaty with regular saunas or hot epsom salt baths, and hot-cold shower therapy to help stimulate detoxification.
Ditch the Cookie-Cutter Approach for Your 2023 Health Goals
If you’d like to start your 2023 health goals on the right track, knowing exactly what you need to heal and thrive (and not what some cookie-cutter program has told you to do), then pop on over and book in for a “Connect The Dots” Initial Consult to get started with identifying which of your body systems need support.
P.s. If this post has triggered you, especially if you’re an avid exerciser and too scared/nervous/attached to change up your current movement regime, stay tuned for next week’s post on how to shift your mindset around exercise.
Filipa Bellette is Co-Founder of Chris & Filly Functional Medicine. She is an accredited Clinical Nutritionist & Functional Medicine Practitioner. She is also a Ph.D. thought-leader, award-winning writer, and regularly published as a guest blogger & in the media. Together with her husband Chris Bellette, Filipa has worked with over 2,000+ busy, burnout clients in the last 10+ years, and specialises in producing healthy, balanced, and happy Mums & Dads...or as she calls it, a Power Parent! Filipa’s own passion for producing high-performance Power Parents came from her own personal experience of Mummy Burnout, after having babies and juggling the demands of business, family, and her failing health.
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