Emotional Exercising

Many of us are all-too familiar with emotional eating, but what about emotional exercising?  Do you depend on exercise to deal with difficult emotions and the stressors of life?  Exercise can be part of a healthy lifestyle, but sometimes we take it too far.


Emotional Exercising the Transcript

Hi and welcome to Nutritionally Speaking.  I’m your host, Michaela Ballmann.

We’ve all heard of the term “Emotional Eating” and maybe we’re more familiar with it than we’d like to be. Emotional Eating is eating in response to either positive or negative emotions or as a way of ignoring or trying to cope with difficult emotions or situations.  Common examples include eating a lot at a celebratory party, downing a box of chocolates after a break-up, or mindlessly finishing a gallon of ice cream in anticipation of a confrontation with your boss.

But, what about “Emotional Exercising”? Have you ever exercised in response to anger, frustration, obsession, or guilt?  Have you ever been so excited that you just wanted to run as fast as you could (and not stop)?  Have you ever been overwhelmed with the demands and challenges of life that you wanted to start walloping on a punching bag?

Exercise is a way that we deal with emotions.  We know that exercise can have many benefits.  It can:

  • Improve memory, learning, and brain function
  • Help maintain or achieve a healthy weight
  • Boost energy
  • Increase immunity
  • Help you sleep better
  • Improve your lipid profile, lower your blood pressure, and reduce the risk for heart disease and stroke
  • Help reduce symptoms of depression
  • Enhance pain tolerance
  • Improve your mood

It’s the last point that I want to look at more extensively today.  Exercise can be a healthy way to deal with stress and anxiety.


Let’s look briefly at the scientific evidence first

That “runner’s-high” that people claim to have (and many have been skeptical of) has actually been shown to be the result of endorphins released in the brain during running or other forms of endurance exercise.  Endorphins are natural opiods that work as neurotransmitters and attach to opiod receptors, producing the afore-mentioned effects. These endorphins work on the “emotion” centers of the brain (the limbic and prefrontal areas), which are also associated with euphoria from powerful music or a new romance.

In addition to endorphins, endocannabinoids like epinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine can also play into the benefits of mental wellbeing and getting pleasure from exercise.

The mood-boosting results of exercise can last a long time too!  A study presented in 2009 at the American College of Sports Medicine found that people exercising on a stationary bike showed improved mood for up to 12 hours after their workout.


Exercising Disorder: Too much of a good thing

Though it seems like exercise could be the best medicine for what ails you, there is such a thing as over-exercising, and it has its dangers.  Other than physical harm, including inflammation, oxidative stress, fatigue, amenorrhea in women, and increased risk for stress fractures and other injuries, my main worry is the potential for exercise compulsion or addiction that may occur.

An Exercise Disorder is similar to an eating disorder in that there is an obsession with achieving a certain body type through exercise and compliance with rigid eating rules.  There can also be a concurrent body dysmorphic disorder, also known as bigorexia in which people don’t see their body as it actually is, and think that they need to gain much more muscle.  A lot of time and energy is spent exercising; the person is consumed with thoughts about their body size; and there is a lot of accompanying guilt and anxiety about not being “good enough”, “big enough”, or “fit enough”.

So, how do YOU relate to exercise?  It is a healthy, natural part of your life? Do you incorporate enjoyable movement into your day? Or is exercise a chore that gets stuck on your “to-do” list?  An added stressor? Do you feel guilty when you don’t exercise?  Do you reap the mood- and health-boosting effects or do you take it a step too far and depend on it to deal with your anxiety?  Has exercise become something it was never designed to be?

If you think you’re an emotional exerciser, I would suggest looking at what emotions tend to lead you to over-exercise or exercise compulsively, and discover other ways to communicate and work through your emotions so that exercise can be purely that.  You can also find help and support from a registered dietitian or other specialist.


I hope that this episode has been helpful and has caused you to think about your relationship with exercise.  As always, if you have any comments or questions, you can email me or go to my website. I would love to hear from you!  You can also follow me on Twitter at @NutriSpeaking.  Thanks again for listening and I’ll see you next time!

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