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Moderating Excessive Exercise: Strategies for Change

Moderating Excessive Exercise: Strategies for Change

Before focusing specifically on changing an exercise behavior, some preparation and planning will increase the chances of success. The following recommendations can help collect and organize the information needed to target the behavior you want to change and make it easier to formulate specific plans to accomplish these goals. Even coming up with reasonable goals requires some forethought and investigation.

1. Record data on the behavior you want to change in an exercise log. Enter the type, frequency, duration, or amount of exercise done per day for a week. This establishes a baseline and allows you to be aware of what you are doing. Remember, keep it honest! The log should also include a column for comments, where you can jot down feelings and thoughts about the workouts.

2. Research and apply information about the behavior you want to change. Information that is accurate, reliable, and scientifically-based will help lead to success.

In a position stand, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) makes the following recommendations for the quantity and quality of training for developing and maintaining cardiorespiratory fitness, body composition, muscular strength and endurance, and flexibility in the healthy adult.

For cardiorespiratory fitness and body composition, the ACSM recommends 3-5 days per week with a training intensity of 55-90% maximum heart rate. (Ninety percent of maximum heart rate would be for very healthy, well-conditioned competitive athletes. For anyone else, however, we don’t recommend exceeding 80% of maximum heart rate.) The duration should be 20-60 minutes of continuous or intermittent aerobic activity; in other words, the exercise can be performed in one session or a number of periods of at least 10 minutes per session throughout the day. These types of activities include walking/hiking, running/jogging, cycling, cross-country skiing, aerobic dance, rowing, swimming, skating, stair climbing, or sports, such as tennis, basketball, soccer, or volleyball.

The ACSM states that, resistance training should be an integral part of an adult fitness program, and recommends 2-3 days per week of doing multiple sets of strengthening exercises, such as weight training.

ACSM also says that flexibility training should be incorporated into fitness programs and stretching should be performed a minimum of 2-3 days per week.

The American Council on Exercise (ACE) offers additional guidelines4 for avoiding overuse injuries especially from running, but applicable to other types of exercise as well. ACE suggests to always follow a relatively hard day of exercising with an easier day and incorporating an occasional “easy” week into your regimen, Contrary to what some people believe, more is not always better – exercising too much substantially increases your chances of sustaining an overuse injury. Remember: Exercise quality is usually more important than quantity.

If you are not in training for athletic competition and the workouts exceed the recommendations of ACSM and ACE or just plain, good sense consider changing your routine. Glenn Gaesser, a noted exercise physiologist, proposes that people should exercise5 an average of 20 minutes per day for good health, especially those who are just starting an exercise program. For more excellent information on this topic, visit the following websites: American College of Sports Medicine ( and American Council on Exercise (

3. Identify the aspects of the exercise behavior to change. Examples might include changing the type of exercise (running to cross training), decreasing the frequency (7 times per week to 5), the duration (90 minutes to 60), and/or the intensity (85% of maximum heart rate to 70%).

With regard to maximum heart rate, let’s say that you want to decrease the intensity of your exercise. Say you determine that 70% of your maximum heart rate would be a healthy target range. You would then subtract your age from 220 (this is a constant that is used for computation) and compute 70% of that number to determine 70% of your maximum heart rate. For example, if you are 40 years old, the calculation would be (220 – 40) x 0.70 = 126 beats per minute. Thus, you would aim to maintain your heart rate at 126 beats per minute or less while exercising to successfully decrease the intensity of the workout.

If you exercise for excessive periods of time, try to be honest about it. Most health and sports medicine groups recommend no more than 60 minutes at a time. If you exceed that recommendation, then you are probably exercising for reasons other than health. Unless you are a competitive athlete, you are most likely not working to improve a sport-related skill. Ask yourself: If I am not exercising for my health or competition, then why am I exercising so much? If you can determine the reasons for overexercising, then you will have a better sense about motivation and needs. This might help you meet your needs in a different way to decrease your dependence on exercise.

4. Set reasonable goals. Aim for gradual rather than abrupt change. Slow and steady progress both feels less intense and gives you and your body more time to adjust physically and psychologically to a new regimen. Write down goals, breaking them down to short-term and long-term. For example, a long-term goal would be decreasing the duration of daily exercise from two hours to one. Your short-term goal would be to reduce exercise sessions by 15 minutes per week. At first, decrease exercising from 2 hours to 1 hour 45 minutes and stay at that level for the first week. If you’re successful, reduce your routine another 15 minutes for the next week, continuing this gradual process until the goal of one hour is reached. By systematically reducing the duration of exercise in small amounts, you will have gradually modified behavior, hopefully with a minimum of difficulty and discomfort. Practicing this new level of exercise duration should begin to feel more comfortable both psychologically and physically.

However, if you are unsuccessful at first, try cutting off 5 minutes every 2-3 days. If reducing even small amounts is not possible, more drastic measures are necessary. In fact, there may be a need to stop exercising completely and eventually resume at short durations. If you can neither decrease nor stop exercising, professional help is needed.

5. Talk with someone you trust about the changes you want to make and the strategies you want to try. When intentions are verbalized, it gives them life and strengthens resolve. Actually, you would probably benefit from outside input in determining goals and might seek assistance from an athletic trainer, therapist, or good friend. If there are health issues, start by talking with a primary care physician. Keep this person informed of goals and progress. This approach adds an element of accountability. If you pick someone who will be firm, honest, and supportive, then this person can help protect you from yourself. That is, your reasons, excuses, or rationalizations for not progressing with your change can be challenged. Additionally, instruct this person to offer praise when you do well, because positive reinforcement is a great motivator and can help you stay on track.

One way to reduce exercising for excessive periods of time is to have a partner, someone who will not only help you stay within a reasonable time limit, but also make the activity a social experience. If you’d rather not have a partner, ask yourself why. Could it have anything to do with your need to be in control? You might think that including another person will interfere with your workout or slow you down, but maybe this is exactly the reason why you need an exercise partner to change your behavior and routine.

6. Recognize how you feel emotionally and physically. Try to be positive about your feelings. For example, if changing makes you anxious, take comfort that anxiety is part of the process and will eventually subside. Congratulate yourself for taking better care of your body. Praise yourself for having the fortitude to attempt altering unhealthy behavior despite the anxiety, because it indicates commitment to change as well as toughness and resolve. Remind yourself that there have been other situations when anxiety or fear were encountered, yet you persevered in spite of those feelings. Such situations not only require commitment and toughness, they also require courage. Remember that courage is not the absence of fear, but rather doing what you need to do despite the fear. Even if you initially have some emotional turmoil as a result of decreasing your exercise, focus on how much better your body feels. Always be aware of and acknowledge the positives. Does your body feel less tired? Stronger? Rested? Allowing yourself to be aware of bodily feelings and sensations is reinforcing and can help motivate you to continue your quest for change.

One good way to be in touch with your feelings is to regularly write in a journal. Some people routinely spend every morning and evening recording their thoughts. You might write daily goals to start the day, and at night reflect on the events and feelings that occurred. Also use your journal during times of stress, for example, when you might otherwise be exercising.

7. Relax! One of the hardest things a high-energy person can do is to do nothing at all; and yet, slowing down is absolutely essential for individuals who must decrease their activity. For someone who is constantly moving, sitting still and becoming centered on her own quiet inner self is tremendously worthwhile. One way to do this is through meditation, which is a component of numerous recovery programs. One simple way to meditate is by sitting quietly for 10-30 minutes with eyes closed while focusing on the breath coming in and going out. When thoughts arise, let them drift by while returning attention to breathing. Eventually, with practice, the thoughts subside and you discover inner peace. This is just one way to meditate there are many others, any of which is beneficial. Meditating for a period of time that might otherwise be spent exercising is an excellent substitution. In fact, it may be as challenging to increase meditation time as to decrease exercise, but the rewards will be significant.

While mediation is a formal relaxation activity, there are other effective ways to relax, such as watching the sunset, carefully listening to music, taking a hot bath, or engaging in a hobby.

8. Support yourself. Don’t be hard on yourself if expectations are not met on your first attempt. Berating yourself is never helpful; try to stay positive. Remember, you didn’t learn to walk in a day. But staying positive does not mean lying to yourself or denying the truth. Review your steps and acknowledge where you fell short, but balance it with positives. Focusing only on the negative is apt to lead to frustration and decreased motivation. Be objective and try to determine what necessary adjustments are needed for more success next time.

Many people can succeed if they stay committed and motivated, but others find that professional support helps them get past obstacles. As therapists, we assume that it is a sign of strength not weakness to ask for help.

Excerpt with permission from Exercise Balance
by Pauline S. Powers, M.D., Ron Thompson, PhD
To find out more about this helpful book click here.


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