When Kirsten Ruliffson met with a personal trainer in February, she expected to hear that she needed to work out longer, faster and harder if she really wanted to cut down on the body fat that had stayed stubbornly put for two years.
But what she really heard was just the opposite: That to truly achieve her health and fitness goals, she needed to take a break from her near-daily high-intensity classes and find more ways to let her muscles repair and keep her heart rate low instead.
“I was always wired to [to believe] the higher the intensity, the more progress you’re going to make,” says Ruliffson, a 39-year-old personal trainer-turned-Realtor near Minneapolis.
But because that theory wasn’t proving true, Ruliffson obeyed, trading hot yoga for restorative yoga, swapping interval-training classes for leisurely stationary bike rides and tending to her sleep schedule as religiously as her gym schedule. As a result, she’s beginning to see the changes in strength and muscle definition she’d literally been chasing for years. “I can tell … it’s making a huge difference,” she says.
Less Is More
Ruliffson is a minority in the U.S., where 4 out of 5 adults aren’t even meeting the minimum recommendations for physical activity. Still, stories like hers are all too familiar to exercise and mental health professionals who frequently see people sabotaging their physical and mental health by working out too often, too intensely or both.
“Six to seven out of 10 [clients] I actually have to tell to back off,” says Ruliffson’s trainer, Brooke Rozmenoski, the group training coordinator and nutrition coach at Life Time New Hope in Minnesota. “We need to figure out when it’s good to push it harder and back off, and if they’re pushing harder all the time, they’re actually doing their body [more harm] than good.”
Not only is rest important to stave off injury and allow damaged muscles to repair and grow, but “overtraining syndrome,” as it’s described in some research, can compromise the nervous, hormonal and immune systems, and affect mood. For Ruliffson, training only in high-intensity zones had sabotaged her body’s ability to effectively burn fat, which is mostly used to fuel low-intensity exercise. “Before knowing all of this,” she says, “[low-intensity exercise] seemed really boring and a waste of time.”
Some excessive exercisers can even experience some of the same dangerous features of addiction, including needing more and more to achieve the same high, feeling out of control and continuing to exercise even when it’s causing harm, says Dr. Elizabeth Joy, a sports medicine physician in Salt Lake City who specializes in eating disorders. “Instead of spending time at work or even with family or friends,” she says, “you start to see exercise as one of the only things that they can do.”
Withdrawing With Care
Dialing back on exercise for any reason isn’t always easy. “Withdrawal from exercise is a very real thing,” Joy says. “There are physical and mental consequences.”
Well-designed studies show, for example, that when people are told to stop exercising, they’re more anxious, irritable and sluggish. Such effects can be exacerbated among athletes and others whose self-esteem, body image and identity are deeply tied to their exercise regimen, says Jodi Rubin, a therapist in New York City who founded Destructively Fit to help fitness professionals recognize and address eating disorders among clients.
In addition to gaining weight, “one major worry is … ‘I view myself as somebody who’s athletic and someone who’s fit, so what now if I don’t do that?’” Rubin says. The answer, she and other experts say, is multifaceted. Here are their tips for adopting a more moderate exercise routine as painlessly as possible:
1. Look at the whole picture.
When Angela Fifer, a sport psychology coordinator at Drexel University, works with student athletes, she often asks them to create an “athletic identity pie” to visualize how much of their self-image is connected to their sport versus other areas of their lives like family, school and hobbies. The goal? Balance. “It’s much healthier if you [can say], ‘When I do well in school or in a job, I feel the same sense of satisfaction as I do from performing well at a race or pushing hard at a workout,” Fifer says.
2. Use tools.
Ruliffson sleeps with a heart rate variability device, which measures the amount of time between heartbeats to shed light on how stressed versus rested she is. The data helps her and Rozmenoski craft the intensity of her workouts the next day. “I can feel really good and mentally ready, and it will tell me, ‘Your body is just not ready today to go full-out,’” Ruliffson says. “That’s another thing that keeps you going is having something that’s tangible to look at.”
3. Embrace variety.
Most people don’t need to quit exercise cold turkey, but rather find a wider variety of enjoyable ways to move their body. Try different types of yoga or barre (a ballet-inspired class); take your dog for a walk instead of a run; schedule one gym day to only stretch and foam roll. “The goal isn’t to get it to nothing,” Rubin says, “the goal is to get it to a healthy place.”
4. Find community.
At first, Ruliffson missed the community she’d developed in some of her classes, but she soon found a new community in other activities. “Surround yourself with people who are committed to the same goals,” she suggests. You can also try volunteering for races or finding other ways to stay involved in your sport’s culture, says Fifer, an executive board member at the Association for Applied Sport Psychology.
5. Get help.
Exercise professionals are just as capable of helping people dial back on exercise as they are motivating them to take their fitness up a notch. “The investment you make in working with someone … is priceless,” Ruliffson found. If your commitment to exercise is more compulsive than enjoyable or it’s interfering with other important aspects of your life, recruit a mental health professional – ideally one who specializes in eating disorders – who can help you change your internal dialogue and detach your self-esteem from your exercise routine, Joy suggests.
6. Be patient.
Fifer’s master’s thesis found that athletes reeling from a career-ending injury go through the classic stages of grief, “almost like someone died,” she says. Even for Ruliffson, who wasn’t forced to quit exercising, the first month dialing back wasn’t easy. But thanks to “blind trust” in Rozmenoski and a mentality to take it one day at a time, soon enough, she felt more refreshed, stronger and motivated to stick with it. “I know this is just the beginning,” she says.