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Binge exercising: the dangers

11:30 Tue Dec 11 2012
Tom Fontaine
Binge exercising: the dangers
Thing long-term with exercise and the results will follow. (Thinkstock)

The health risks of bingeing on food and booze are well-documented, but experts are warning of a rising phenomenon — binge exercising.

It should come as no surprise that gym memberships are on the rise, while record numbers of people are taking up new sports.

Great news, surely? Well, yes. But also no. While it's encouraging that so many men are inspired to start working out, a lack of fitness education also means many of them will cram, or 'binge', on exercise for a few weeks, then get bored and stop going, only to repeat the process after the festive season (when we've binged on junk food and alcohol).

Hitting the treadmill hard for just a couple of weeks at a time can lead to a number of health problems, including yo-yo weight gains, damage to joints and a whole host of other issues. Personal trainer Gavin Walsh says: "I see this every year without fail. Particularly after Christmas. Motivation will be super-high come January and many people will throw themselves into exercise in a bid to reduce any festive weight gain.

"By mid-February many of these people have lost their mojo and given up on their health and fitness goals for another year. For many men bingeing like this is like jumping into the deep end of a swimming pool without being able to swim. Injuries can be common, but the main problem with this attitude is that it isn't sustainable and it will be just a matter of time until they revert back to not exercising at all."

Scott Murray, coach and sports scientist, agrees. "The Institute of Sport and Recreation Management found that having binged over the Christmas holiday period, some people hammer themselves at the gym without a properly constructed, progressive programme," he says.

"Obvious issues with this are the pains and strains of over-exercising but the longer term effects are that the participants fail to achieve their goals, their confidence gets dented and they turn away from any sort of keeping fit."

Bingeing
Bingeing on exercise may make us feel better about ourselves, but it often fails to deal with the real problems affecting our health. And for many men, this means poor diet. Walsh says: "Most of our results will come from nutrition rather than exercise. I would say successful weight loss is as much as 70 per cent nutrition and only 30 per cent exercise. This means eating only real food like lean meats, fish, vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds. Without a change in a person's diet, fat loss will no doubt be slow and lead to frustration and abandoning of goals."

It's also unrealistic to think that this method of cramming in exercise sessions will last. If you truly want to get in shape, then you need realistic, durable goals.

Murray says: "Goal-setting should help keep you on track and keep you motivated. Most physical adaptation will take 8-12 weeks depending on where you are starting from and your genetic make-up. So work back from where you want to be in 12 weeks — let's keep it realistic. Review your goals at four, eight and 12 weeks to see if you are still on track. Tell your exercise buddies what you want to achieve so they can help keep you going. Write your goals down and stick them someplace where you can't avoid seeing them."

Patience is key. Remember, it takes years of eating badly and not exercising to get seriously out of shape, so reversing this trend and arriving at full fitness isn't going to happen in a few weeks. Walsh says: "After hopping on the scales and getting the fright of their life many people go into overdrive. They tell themselves that they will hit the gym five times a week, eat cabbage soup and transform their body in just a few short weeks. This just won't happen. I'm not saying you can't get some impressive changes over 3-4 weeks, but you have to play the long game."

Starve and binge
Obsessing over one particular form of physical exercise is classic binge behaviour, but it will only get you so far, says Murray.

"If you only do one type of exercise at one intensity, then not only will you get bored but you will also not gain any fitness benefits as you will no longer be stimulating your energy or neuromuscular systems. And we know that boredom and lack of training responses will mean that participants will walk away from exercising," he says.

Bingeing also takes the enjoyment out of exercise, a primary reason why so many men fall off the wagon so quickly. Murray adds: "Keep exercise fun, do something that you enjoy and that you can do with family and friends. Don't go mad — look for 30-60 minutes max and only look to go out every other day. Remember that you get your fitness gains when you are resting. Try different sports, think back to what you enjoyed as a kid or things that you've always fancied having a crack at. Thirty minutes walking has been shown to alleviate a number of medical conditions."

This singular focus tends to involve doing as much cardio as possible in a short time. Again, this only leads to disappointment. Walsh says: "Many will jump on to the nearest treadmill or rowing machine in a bid to lose the excess weight, but unfortunately this is not the most effective way to burn fat and will produce slow progress. A better use of our time is to combine cardiovascular and resistance training. This will yield far better results and mean that you are more likely to keep up this health and fitness kick long term.

"For the novice I prefer to start with short 5-25 minute workouts several times a week which mix cardiovascular and resistance exercises. The key is to keep it simple and start with relatively short sessions. Most people struggle to fit exercise into their daily schedule, so I show them that they can still get a great workout within a very short amount of time. As time passes we can then look to increase the time or the intensity depending on the goals and time available."

But the effects of bingeing on exercise stretch beyond poor muscle definition. Keep it up, and you will actually face more serious health problems. For starters, a yo-yoing waistline will play havoc with your hormone levels, including insulin, which has been linked to diabetes and high blood pressure.

"Back in 1998, a study out of Georgia, reported in the Journal of the American Heart Association, showed that taking a 'starve and binge' approach to exercise could actually increase your cholesterol levels whereas regular exercise reduced cholesterol," says Murray. "Numerous studies show that consistent exercise boosts your immune system. However, when you over-train or exercise daily to the point of exhaustion, it can hurt your immune system by spiking the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol in your body."

So, be consistent and think long-term. Like those heavy drinking sessions you used to have at university, those bingeing days are behind you.

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