How Overexercising Can Be Bad For Your Mental Health

Stop button on exercise bike
(Image credit: Getty Images / Grace Cary)

While it’s true to say that most of us could benefit from being more active, both for our physical and mental health, it’s also possible to do too much, especially if you’re not building regular rest days into your routine.

New research from mental health charity Mind suggests that some people are not taking their rest as seriously as they should be. One in six of those surveyed (18%) said they exercised despite being unwell or injured, and fewer than two-thirds of active people (59%) reported building rest days into their routine.

We spoke to Hayley Jarvis, head of physical activity for Mind, about the importance of making sure you don’t overexercise, and how to find a balance so your exercise improves your mental health rather than becoming a burden.

Why is it important to include rest as part of your exercise routine?

The benefits of physical activity for people’s mental health are well established, such as reducing the risk of depression by 30%, and it should be one of the first treatments for mild or moderate depression.

We know most people aren’t active enough, but it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Rest days allow the body and the mind to recover, support good-quality sleep and allow the muscles to repair. They can also increase our focus and motivation, and boost our energy levels. 

There are two types of rest – full rest or active rest, where you’re doing lighter-intensity physical activities or switching up your routine on your off days. We think rest days aren’t talked about enough, certainly for the grassroots. Elite athletes always build in rest to their routine.

What factors lead people to overexercise?

It’s something we’ve seen during the pandemic in particular. When we were in lockdown it was the only reason that we could leave our house, so some people were staying out for longer and doing more physical activity. Access to usual sources of support when services either went online or stopped, in many cases. 

There was also no access to friends and family, and a lack of accountability. When we’re seeing people all the time and perhaps going to the gym or seeing our running friends, people might say, “We’re worried about you, we think you’re doing a bit much”.

There’s also interplay between certain mental health problems and overexercising. We know people with eating problems are almost four times as likely to develop an unhealthy relationship with physical activity. There’s also a link with addiction. So people who may have had an alcohol or gambling addiction may then substitute one addiction for another, particularly if they’ve not addressed the underlying issues and their mental health problem in the first place. 

Also we live in an age of social media and there’s that narrative about “stronger, leaner, faster” – almost glorifying doing more and more.

How can you identify if you’re overexercising?

With overexercising, you’re thinking about exercising for too long or too intensely, without enough rest. When you can’t stop exercising without being worried or distressed, that is a sign that something might be going on.

Concerns arise when it’s affecting your job, or your relationships, and people are saying that they’re worried that you do that too much. When you don’t take breaks – when you’re feeling tired, or when you’re injured or unwell, and you’re dragging yourself out there when you probably know it’s not the best thing for you. Also when you’re going hard or far every day or several times a day. Some of the experts I spoke to were talking about people exercising during TV ad breaks and finding excuses constantly to be active. 

I’m a huge advocate for physical activity, but it’s about trying to make sure it’s not the sole thing in somebody’s life.

How can you make rest days more of a priority?

Having other interests and hobbies is key, whether it’s reading, meditation, photography… Or do things related to your body, like getting a massage or foam rolling. Think about active rest if you’re not ready to stop completely. So walking, yoga, stretching – something that’s lower-impact. Perhaps connect with other people that you don’t have time to see normally.

What we’re trying to do is gain that healthy balance. When exercise is your only coping strategy, if you get injured you’ll be left bereft.

How much exercise should you aim to do?

A Lancet report from 2018 found that people who exercised for 45 minutes three to five times a week had fewer incidences of mental ill health than those that did either more or less. I think there is going to be more research about what the sweet spot is, because obviously too little is a massive issue for most people. I spend most of my life saying, “Get active, it's good for your mental health”, but it’s clear too much can be detrimental as well.

Do you have any other advice on how to balance exercise and rest?

Coaches have a huge role, and I think helping people to identify why they’re active, and to find the love and then the enjoyment of it, is key. Realistic goals are also really important for people. A training plan should include rest days and also encourage other activities, like cross-training and stretching. Aim to get that balance and connect with others as well. Remember it should be fun, and not always a chore.

Nick Harris-Fry
Senior writer

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.