When Should I Worry About...

Can a Healthy Habit Ever Become Unhealthy?

Nov. 1, 2021 - Katie McCallum

Habits are good. They help bring structure to your life.

It stands to reason, then, that healthy habits are doubly good. Not only do they provide stability and routine, they come with health-boosting, life-improving benefits.

Three healthy habits that get the most attention are exercise, a healthy diet and sleep — and for good reason. Each plays a hugely beneficial role in your overall health and well-being.

But can these three healthy habits ever be taken to such extremes that they become unhealthy?

How much exercise is too much?

The benefits of regular exercise are certainly there, ranging from improved mood and better sleep to a healthy heart, strong bones and weight control. That's why it's recommended that adults get at least 150 minutes of exercise every single week.

"Still, anyone can overdo it with exercise," says Dawn Stuckey, athletic trainer at Houston Methodist. "Rest is an important part of training. It allows your body to recover for your next workout. When you don't get enough rest, it can lead to poor performance and health problems."

Stuckey adds that the specifics of what might be considered 'too much exercise' depends on your particular level of fitness.

If you're new to working out, exercising too much might look like ramping up the frequency, intensity or duration of your workouts way too quickly without giving your body the time it needs to adjust to the new load.

According to Stuckey, the signs that you might be exercising too much include:

  • Fatigue
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Feeling worn down
  • Reduced performance

"Sore muscles are normal, but your body being exhausted all the time is not," adds Stuckey. "If you keep pushing and pushing and don't give your body enough time to recover between workouts, it can lead to reduced performance and even injury."

If you already work out regularly, exercising too much becomes more a matter of overtraining.

"Overtraining is a long-term consequence of regularly not giving your body enough time to recover between workouts. It can take several months to manifest," says Stuckey. (Related: How to Avoid Overtraining for a Marathon)

The signs of overtraining include:

  • Being unable to perform at the same level
  • Needing longer periods of rest
  • Feeling tired
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Having mood swings or feeling irritable
  • Experiencing anxiety or depression
  • Losing motivation to work out
  • Overuse injuries
  • Getting sick more frequently
  • Unexplained weight loss

"If you notice these signs of overtraining, try cutting back on exercise or even resting completely for one to two weeks. Often, this is all it takes to recover," Stuckey recommends. "If you're still tired after this rest, see your health care provider. He or she can help you decide how and when it is safe to start exercising again."

Can dieting ever be bad or too restrictive?

Eating a healthy, balanced diet not only helps ensure that your body and brain are getting all the nutrients, vitamins and minerals they need to function optimally, it can reduce your risk of a number of health conditions and help with weight loss and maintenance.

"We know that many health and metabolic conditions — like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease — can improve with weight loss. Many people look to dieting not just to lose weight, but to help get themselves off medications or become lower-risk candidates for medical procedures," says Emma Willingham, clinical dietitian at Houston Methodist.

But, whether you're dieting for weight loss or weight management, can dieting itself ever be bad?

"Dieting can be good when the person dieting is using the 'diet' or dietary change as a tool to learn how to eat better and achieve higher quality nutrition," says Willingham. "But often people go on diets to lose weight fast and don't learn new habits along the way."

Essentially, weight loss shouldn't be the only goal of a weight-loss program. Learning the behaviors that help achieve and maintain weight loss is just as important as losing the weight.

"If you don't learn from your diet — say, Whole 30 — what happens on Day 31 when that diet ends? Dieting without learning can lead to a chronic cycle of weight loss and regain, sometimes called yo-yo dieting, which is an example of how dieting can turn bad," warns Willingham.

Going through this cycle of following a diet, losing the weight, falling back into old behaviors, putting the weight back on and then dieting again is confusing for both your body and your metabolism.

Another example of when a diet turns bad is when dieting becomes the gateway for severe and long-term dietary restriction, such as with orthorexia.

"Orthorexia is a preoccupation or unhealthy focus on 'eating clean' or the perception of eating healthy. Sometimes, people go on diets, see success and want so badly to maintain that success that they become more and more restrictive with their food choices," explains Willingham.

Since many diet programs eliminate entire food groups, these restrictions set you up to miss out on a lot of opportunities to consume a variety of foods and nutrients. (Related: Which Diet Would a Dietitian Actually Do?)

"Many diet programs also create unnecessary food fear, hurting your relationship with food and your body — not to mention your social life," says Willingham.

Is there such a thing as getting too much sleep?

We all know sleep does the body good. Not only does it help us feel energized the next day, but not getting enough of it is actually linked to a number of health conditions, including heart disease, depression, diabetes and obesity.

"The exact amount of sleep that's best for each person varies, but the average adult typically needs somewhere between seven to nine hours of sleep per night," says Dr. Aarthi Ram, neurologist specializing in sleep medicine at Houston Methodist.

Many people don't get enough sleep each night, though, which leaves us looking for any chance to make up for this lost sleep — even if that means sleeping in (way in) on the weekends.

Since it disrupts the timing of your body's internal clock, sleeping more than usual can come with some unwanted side effects, like daytime sleepiness.

The good news is that Dr. Ram says sleeping in typically isn't something to worry about or that causes harm.

However, if you're someone who frequently oversleeps and it still never feels like enough, it's time to talk to your doctor.

"Certain underlying health conditions can contribute to poor sleep, making you feel like you need more hours of sleep to feel fully refreshed," warns Dr. Ram.

At the end of the day, we all want to be the best versions of ourselves and healthy habits are a great way to get there. But, as they say, everything in moderation. While most of us probably do that anyway, if you do find yourself taking a healthy habit to its extreme, try to step back and reassess why you even started this healthy habit in the first place.

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Categories: When Should I Worry About...