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What’s the right amount of exercise?

by Chris Plehal

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It seems like every other week there’s a new article about mental health benefits of exercise. Study after study has shown that exercise reduces stress and anxiety, and can even mimic the effects of antidepressants. For people like me, who often struggle with anxiety, exercise is an effective coping strategy.

But what happens when your coping strategy becomes the source of your anxiety?

Six months ago, I started a new exercise program. My mood has improved dramatically, and when negative thoughts arise, I find it easier to let them go. I feel great. But there’s a new itch in my mind: the fear of not exercising. I spend a lot of time thinking about my next workout. If I miss a day in my program, I beat myself up mentally. I’m a perfectionist.

I have a history with this. As a child, I was hospitalized for anorexia. At that time, my approach to exercise was obsessive and controlling. I moved past it through therapy, and for most of my adult life, I exercised moderately. I didn’t obsess but didn’t get as many anxiety-fighting benefits either.

So what’s the right balance? How can people with perfectionist tendencies receive the mental health benefits of exercise, while still practicing self-care?

To find out, I called Jennifer Sy, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the Houston OCD Program. Perfectionism and OCD aren’t the same, but they do share some characteristics, such as extremely high standards of behavior and self-criticism. And in both cases, coping strategies can sometimes backfire.

“Any coping strategy can become a compulsion,” Sy explained. “Deep breathing can become a compulsion. A coping strategy is something you use to help. But the moment it becomes something you have to do, it’s a problem.”

Sy’s words reminded me of my meditation practice. In the beginning, I tried to meditate every single day; I would get anxious if I missed a session. I’d sneak off to meditate at awkward times, just so I could “check it off my list.” Not the most mindful behavior, I’ll admit. [Editor’s Note: maybe a good time to try the Balance Pack.]

Sy outlined a few warning signs for when a coping strategy might cross the line from healthy to unhealthy:

Getting in the way of valued action

Is your coping strategy preventing you from doing things you value? “For example,” says Sy, “are you blowing off your daughter’s birthday to go to the gym.” (I’m not, but point taken.)

Negative self-talk

Some people might say to themselves, “If I don’t exercise, that means I’m lazy. I’m a loser.” This is a good indication that a coping strategy has gone too far.

Catastrophizing

Perfectionists can have distorted thoughts about the consequences of not exercising. For example, “If I miss one day, I’ll go back to my old self.”

Hearing these points, I kept thinking of the term “self-compassion.” My approach to exercise may have been self-care, but it wasn’t particularly compassionate.

Kristen Neff, one of the world’s current leading experts on self-compassion, says: “You may try to change in ways that allow you to be more healthy and happy, but this is done because you care about yourself, not because you are worthless or unacceptable as you are.”

Neff suggests that finding the right balance requires a certain attitude. Exercising and meditating are healthy, as long as your motivation is healthy, too.

As a perfectionist, I like plans and lists. So I asked Sy, “OK, say you realize that your self-care behavior has become a compulsion. What can you do about it?”

She offered a few tips for healthy approaches to self-care habits:

1. Be flexible. Sticking to a schedule for exercise or meditation is beneficial, but only to a point. Life gets in the way sometimes, and it can be helpful to learn to roll with it.

2. Seek perspective from people you trust. When stuck in your own head, your views can become distorted. Sy suggests you ask a friend, “Hey, you seem to have similar goals to me. How often do you exercise?” You don’t have to be exactly like another person, but asking is a good way to gain insight.

3. Cut yourself some slack. If your plan to go to the gym is thwarted, you might feel disappointed or self-critical. But as Sy explained, “The self-compassion approach would be, ‘It’s ok. I can go tomorrow.’”

“Check in with yourself and think ‘Is this working for me?’” Sy suggests. “Or is this getting in the way of the life I want?’”

Exercise and meditation have helped me tame anxiety and become a calmer, kinder person to others. My next challenge is extending that kindness to myself. I plan to work hard at it—but not too hard.

The author of this post is an editorial contributor to Headspace. These are their views, experiences and results and theirs alone. This contributor was paid for their writing.

Chris Plehal

Chris Plehal is a writer who believes creativity can change the world for the better. His work has appeared on television, in children's books, in advertising, and on film. He currently splits his time between Philadelphia and New York. Chris has been meditating with Headspace since 2014.