Going the distance – what happens when exercise gets extreme?

“Why does everything always have to be so extreme?” My mother asks me, as I tell her that I’ve signed up for more intense training and even less chocolate cake.

Because in August, I’ll be taking part in the Prudential Ride London 100 mile cycle. Which, I suppose, is a bit extreme. But there are thousands of others doing it. Such was the popularity of this new event that there was a ballot for entries, despite the hefty entry fee.

So what can I tell my mother besides: it’s just what we do; these days completing a marathon barely raises an eyebrow amidst my thirty-something, London-based, professional friends; what was previously a mark of a serious runner is now so commonplace it’s almost mediocre.

Even the Royals are on the ‘sporting endurance bandwagon’ – last year Pippa Middleton completed the world’s longest cross-country ski race (56 miles) in Sweden and the previous year the Blenheim Triathlon – and the general consensus seems to be that, if you want to impress people, or to raise large amounts of cash for the charity of your choice, you’d better pick something original. Like the friends of mine last December who ran, amidst driving rain and snow: twelve marathons in twelve consecutive days.

With these kinds of people out there for inspiration, it’s hardly surprising that some of us feel a bit inferior, especially post Olympics, when we were bombarded by images of beautiful athletes, perfect role models for strength, power and agility.

But must us mere mortals really push ourselves to breaking point? ‘Dare to be normal,’ someone very wise once said to me. And maybe it’s true that finding contentment in accepting oneself as not extraordinary is, in fact, a sign of bravery and strength.

But must us mere mortals really push ourselves to breaking point? ‘Dare to be normal,’ someone very wise once said to me. And maybe it’s true that finding contentment in accepting oneself as not extraordinary is, in fact, a sign of bravery and strength. Certainly with regards exercise, it might help if we could acknowledge that missed gym sessions are not disasters, nor can we all develop a body like that of Olympic gold-medalist, Jess Ennis, when we’re also trying to hold down full-time jobs, relationships, social lives and everything else.

Nor can we necessarily thrive on yet another ridiculous diet. These days, it’s not enough to eat sensibly, doubling up on greens and swapping white pasta for brown; we have to eliminate all carbohydrates. We can’t simply eat small, regular portions most days; we have to virtually fast for two days out of five. What’s next? Eating on two days and fasting on seven?

Dr. Sneh Khemka, Director of Healthcare Development at Bupa, says:

‘When trying to kick-start our health, it can feel like taking up a new ‘extreme’ programme might be the best solution – but this is rarely the case. Dramatically restricting kilojoules through crash dieting or fasting, for example, can trick the body into thinking there’s a famine.’

Ironically, under such ‘famine’ conditions, we cling to our fat with all our might, making it harder to lose than if we were to eat regular, balanced, small meals throughout the day. And then there’s the affect on mood and emotional health:

‘Extreme dieting or detox also can cause emotional difficulties,’ says Khemka. ‘As blood glucose levels fluctuate, so does your mood, with low blood sugar causing irritability and lethargy. Detoxing can similarly affect cortisol and nor-adrenaline levels, which are in part responsible of how you are feeling at any point in time’.

Personal Trainer and Sportswear designer, Charli Cohen (www.charli-cohen.com) agrees that high cortisol (the stress hormone) levels are to be avoided at all costs. She says:

‘Whilst short bursts of cortisol elevation can be good for the body, the chronic and high elevation created by long-term over-training and under-eating is incredibly counterproductive. At best, it will result in a weight-loss plateau and, at worst, it could cause lasting damage to your metabolism as dieting and exercising to the point of creating a calorie deficit causes levels of crucial hormones like leptin, thyroid and insulin to fall, slowing down the metabolism and promoting fat storage over muscle retention. (It’s also worth noting that inadequate recovery as a result of over-training exacerbates muscle loss further – the amount of lean mass you have is directly proportionate to your metabolic rate, so the muscle loss alone will cause metabolic slow-down.)’

She continues:

‘The larger and more prolonged the calorie deficit, the greater the drop in these hormone levels and the more acute the metabolic slow-down and muscle loss (i.e. the ‘damage’). The more extensive this damage is, the longer it takes to reverse it, both in terms of re-regulating hormone levels and rebuilding muscle mass. The latter especially can take years.’ 

Hormonal imbalances aren’t the only issue either:

‘Excessive diet and training can lead to skeletal and muscular injuries, osteoporosis, amenorrhea [when periods stop due to being underweight] and extreme fatigue,’ says Cohen. ‘Not to mention the potential psychological repercussions such as anxiety, depression and eating disorders.’

Cohen doesn’t just speak as a health and fitness professional, but as the survivor of an eating and exercise disorder. Her descent into anorexia began innocently:

‘I started out with just a little weight to lose, so tried various diet and exercise methods I’d seen written about and advertised. But it escalated and, by the age of 15, I was eating half a cup of pumpkin soup and two carrots each day, paired with two hours of exercise before school in the morning, followed by another two hours at the gym after school.’

‘Like many people,’ she says: ‘I started out with just a little weight to lose, so tried various diet and exercise methods I’d seen written about and advertised. But it escalated and, by the age of 15, I was eating half a cup of pumpkin soup and two carrots each day, paired with two hours of exercise before school in the morning, followed by another two hours at the gym after school. At 17, emaciated, malnourished and depressed, I finally faced facts – what had started off as ‘just a diet’ had somehow developed into a full-blown and deadly eating disorder.’ 

After a year spent trying to remind her body what normal eating was, and thus repair her metabolism, Cohen embarked on a balanced four-year plan to reverse the physical ramifications of her extreme exercise and eating habits. Now 23-years-old and 6 years into her recovery, she has finally downgraded the osteoporosis (caused by under eating and over exercising) to osteopenia (referring to low bone density, but one step up from osteoporisis), and had her first period in 8 years. 

Psychotherapist, Emmy Gilmour, is founder of The Recover Clinic in Central London (www.therecoverclinic.co.uk) a centre specialising in the treatment of Eating Disorders where patients with issues similar to Cohen’s are treated.

She says: ‘We exist in a culture of extremes. We’re working, living and loving harder than we have ever done before and it seems that the goal posts are constantly shifting. This kind of mentality is a breeding ground for eating disorders and destructive illnesses. Fasting diets, for example, champion a lifestyle of deprivation and restriction.’

In such a culture, it’s difficult to decipher healthy, moderate, or ‘normal’. That’s why Gilmour has recently launched The Key Retreat (www.thekeyretreat.co.uk), a series of one-day retreats designed to steer individuals in the right direction, using a mixture of taught principles, group work and one-to-one guidance to find a happier, healthier and more balanced way of life.

‘We look for things outside of ourselves to fill an internal void and once we reach our set goals and we get a sense of that hollow victory, we immediately begin a new quest for fulfillment,’ notes Gilmour.

External validation, anyone? Oh yes, that rings true for me. I’ve sought to fix my insides with the outside on more occasions than I’d like to remember. I’ve used shopping, relationships, addictive substances, and exercise to fix myself.

So the goals just escalate, as we seek that fulfillment in yet another achievement. Gone are the days when a half hour jog kept me happy. Every time I train, I want to progress, either in how much weight I lift or how fast I run. What’s more, I know plenty of others who share this mentality.

Yet what’s inside remains the same. So the goals just escalate, as we seek that fulfillment in yet another achievement. Gone are the days when a half hour jog kept me happy. Every time I train, I want to progress, either in how much weight I lift or how fast I run. What’s more, I know plenty of others who share this mentality. The Central London gym I frequent is awash with women like me, whose preoccupation with their progress (in terms of fitness, muscle definition and general appearance) borders on obsession. Classes are booked well in advance, with some members turning up two or sometimes three times a day, desperate to fit in the various types of exercise that together make up the perfect fitness regime. There’s so much to do in any given week: Pilates (for core strength), Weight lifting (to build bone density and muscle tone) Martial Arts (for winking triceps and general toughness) and some kind of high intensity cardio (to improve heart and lung health, not to mention burn calories) like spinning.

What would happen if we all relaxed? Did two sessions per week instead of per day? Would our muscles wither, our faces bloat and bottoms sag? Or would we actually be calmer and more rested and therefore healthier – even happier, perhaps?

Personal Trainer, James Smith, founder of Elite Bodyworks (www.elite-bodyworks.com), warns: Training too frequently can actually become counter productive. As the old adage says, fatigue masks fitness. If you’re not giving your body enough time to rest and recover then you increase your risk of injury and may never reach your potential.’

Here’s the science of it: every time you exercise, hard, you rip the mitochondria (tiny fibres) in the muscles. They need rest and nutrients in order to heal and, provided they get that, they will rebuild stronger than ever. But without adequate rest and the necessary protein and nutrients (dark green vegetables are particularly nutrient dense), you can actually become weaker.

‘For the average person, 3-5 times per week is enough,’ says Smith, who advocates mostly weight training interjected with some short, high-intensity cardio and Yoga or Pilates if time.

But, these days, even yoga gets competitive. Supposedly founded upon ‘ahimsa’ (a Sanskrit term, referring to kindness and non-violence towards all living things, including one’s own body) this form of moving meditation has its extreme factions too, says author of the recently-published, Hellbent, Benjamin Lorr (www.benjaminlorr.net) as he describes the journey from his first Bikram Yoga class (a positive move which helped him slim down and tone up) and into the world of competitive yoga. Lorr explains how he quickly became addicted to the extreme heat, the pain and the punishment of it all.

Pain and punishment, leading to wanting more of the same… Yes, that’s something I can relate to, too. And of course, I also love hot yoga (not necessariy Bikram though, which isn’t a generic term for hot yoga, but in fact refers to a particular sequence involving the same 26 postures each time). There was a stage when I went 4-5 times per week, on top of lots of other training.

But I’ve learnt the painful way that less is sometimes more; whilst regular exercise (for me, 5-6 times per week, for no more than 1 hour at a time) is undoubtedly a positive and entirely natural addition to my life, and something I would struggle to live happily without, it’s also true that sometimes rest, wholesome food and a long chat with a close friend is what my heart muscle really needs. I’ll thank myself for it in the morning.

– By Lucy Fry

First appeared in You magazine, Mail on Sunday.

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