When Exercise is Harmful

It is no secret that physical activity is a pre-requisite to great health. It is a biological need of life, just as air, water, sleep and food are.

However, exercise is a two-edged sword. As much as it can benefit us, equally it can break us.

Too often I see patients at my clinic whose health is damaged, sometimes severely, by exercise. The reason for this is because they have engaged in exercise inappropriately. An example:

James, 52, made an appointment with me about his rheumatoid arthritis (RA) which had been diagnosed a few months previously. He did not want to continue taking the methotrexate and steroids his specialist had prescribed and was seeking an alternative solution, if one existed.

James worked long, stressful hours and was 15 kgs heavier than in his mid 20’s. He had been inactive for 10 years, had very low energy and was getting insufficient sleep. His food intake was conventional: he ate almost anything. He was, in his words, “falling apart”. Three months prior to the RA diagnosis, he commenced jogging and gym work to tone up, lose weight, regain his energy and generally reverse his health decline.

Right Motives, Wrong Game Plan

James’ intentions were noble. After all, he was doing the right thing by exercising to lose weight, or so he thought. What was to follow shocked and angered him.

Within 2 months of exercising, James’ body was stiff and painful, particularly his knees, hands, fingers and shoulders. He was exhausted, and bordering on depression. His doctor prescribed anti-inflammatory drugs, pain -killers and anti-depressants and advised him to cut back on the jogging but continue the gym work.

James complied but still deteriorated, until further tests revealed the RA diagnosis. His specialst then prescribed the much heavier drugs. At this point James could not walk without pain and in fact could barely prise himself out of his car after parking.

James had unknowingly declared war on his body three times!

World War One was when he had neglected his health for 10 years. He had abused his body by over-working, under-sleeping, eating poorly and becoming sedentary. He was operating under a toxic handicap, and it was inevitable something was going to give, and predictably it was his health.

World War Two was when he tried to stop falling apart by pushing himself to exercise when he had very low energy to start with. He did the Codral ad proud by soldiering on!

World War Three was when he took medication to mask his pain and stiffness while continuing to push himself at the gym and work. The medications were a permission slip to continue to declare war on himself, and indeed added to the toxic load his body was already under.

Houston, we have a problem!

James had declared war on his body, now his body was declaring war on him. His joints were angry, and let him know in no unceratin way.

When I explained this scenario to James, he fully understood and agreed he needed to follow a different game plan, as the one he had been on was a disaster.

James’ situation is not an isolated case. I see it regularly across both sexes and all ages.

Five Lessons from James’ Story

1) Never exercise to get energy, exercise when you have energy!

James was exhausted and toxic. Exercise was the last thing he needed at the time. Exercise, especially intense activity, releases certain chemicals called cytokines which, in the presence of exhaustion and a toxic body, turn inflammatory, triggering an inflammatory cascade affecting different tissues. In this case it was his joints.

Different patients, following similar inappropriate exercise, have different target organs. One lady ran a half-marathon after being chronically tired for months and immediately developed Crohns disease, an inflammatory condition of the bowel. This was her “weakness” or target organ.

Another lady developed multiple sclerosis after years of habitually forcing her toxic body to exercise when tired. Her nerves were her weak link or target organ.

Another person developed Hashimoto’s disease, where a similar lifestyle leads to the thyroid gland being the organ under attack.

I could list so many cases, but the point is made.

The inflammatory processes are identical in each case (heat, redness, pain and swelling) but each individual has different weak areas, called ancestral legacies or target organs.

2) If we are chronically tired, from over-work, stress, grief, or whatever, exercise should not be engaged in. This is particularly true of intense exercise. Light exercise may be OK depending upon circumstances, but intense exercise is to be avoided.

Exercising to get energy when you are already tired is a mistake. Exercise never gives energy, it is impossible. Exercise uses energy. If it did give energy, all we would need to do is continually exercise, and energy would be unlimited. This of course is absurd. Exercise is a stimulant, and the perception of increased energy is really the effect of certain chemicals like endorphins and adrenaline on the body.

Get your energy back and become less toxic first by other lifestyle adjustments, and then include exercise gradually.

3) Understand the word intensity. If your life includes some areas which are intense such as intense work- loads and pressures, intense relationship stresses, intense study and exams, intense anything, then be warned: intense exercise will at some point cause serious health problems.

Intensity is a buzz word in gyms and sport. Indeed, there is a place for intense physical training in those engaged in competitive sports but this is far different than intense activity for someone who has other draining commitments like work, family and so on.

The author of this article once trained intensely in things like weights, running and cricket, but this was BC (Before Children) and before running my own business. I wondered why I stated falling apart when I continued such intense exercise after starting a young family, working hard in my own business and having other “nerve leaks” which took my energy from me.

I was spending my energy in other areas and when I demanded my body to train intensely, it was too much and I suffered. I had too many nerve leaks in my life and adding another one at the gym topped me over.

As we get older, we need to understand that too much intensity in our lives is a cause of illness through the inflammatory pathway. This applies to intensity in anything- work, study, relationships, financial commitments or exercise.

You find those who compete at very high levels and train intensely are generally younger and have few outside “nerve leaks”. They can recuperate their energy far more easily than say someone who is working hard to pay off a mortgage, raise a family and fulfil other commitments.

Intensity can be very damaging when inappropriate.

4) You can never exercise your way out of a poor diet, or insufficient sleep or too much stress. Like James, you will find that your health fails when this is attempted. Balance is needed, as pointed out in the last newsletter A Question of Balance.

5) Unless you are competing, make sure you exercise for health, not for fitness. Listen to your body, as it speaks the truth unless drugged, respect your energy levels and apply all your biological needs, including exercise, appropriately. The key word here is appropriately.

James was doing the right thing at the wrong time. Pushing himself when exhausted triggered a health crisis which forced him to stop almost everything.

Make sure you do the right thing (exercise) at the right time (with energy).

Remember, your energy IS your life. Do not abuse it.