Spotlight on Exercise, Part 3: Creating An Exercise Habit

Spotlight on Exercise, Part 3: Creating an exercise habit

Please do take a look at Part 1, The health benefits of exercise & Part 2, The potential risks of over-exercising of this series before reading the following. It will help to give some more perspective and context.

Moving our body throughout the day, regularly getting out of breath and incorporating some strength and resistance training into our week are all fantastic ways to maintain health and prevent future disease. However, increasing this to multiple hours of strenuous exercise on a regular basis does not necessarily magnify these benefits. More is not always better.

If you are suffering from any condition that may affect your ability to safely exercise, do seek the advice of your GP before attempting any of the advice discussed. As always, what is written here is no substitute for individual medical, fitness or lifestyle advice.

Here are some ideas and tips that may help you to find your ‘happy medium’ of exercise intensity and frequency.

Whilst I don’t purport to have all the answers (who does?! I am not a fitness professional and am still on my own fitness journey), these are some of the things that help Richard’s and my own clients:

  • Have at least one complete rest day every week, but also give yourself the permission to take a longer break if you feel you need too.
  • Try not to be too rigid with your training programme, and work on both emotional and mental flexibility with your plan. Remember the importance of the whole tripod of exercise, diet and rest. You need all three to be equally balanced.
  • Become aware of the messages your body uses to let you know if you are pushing yourself a little too much. Listen to them and adapt what you are doing accordingly. What works best for you will be constantly changing and evolving over time.
  • If you are suffering with stress or anxiety and feel overwhelmed by exercise instead of relieved, some periods of hyper-relaxation can be really helpful. Try guided meditations, breathing exercises, yoga, or other mindfulness-based activities. Even having a long, hot bath or just sitting in nature for 10 minutes can be so beneficial.
  • Make time for energy-boosting situations; spend time with friends and family, watch a comedy, go to the cinema. Remember that being healthy certainly isn’t all about training and nutrition plans.
  • Think outside of the box. Movement doesn’t have to mean formal exercise – walking the dogs, doing chores around the house, even going shopping (!), gardening, walking a few stops instead of sitting on the bus or tube can all contribute.
  • If you sit at a desk all day, consider switching from a normal desk chair to more active sitting (there are all sorts of options available online), or a standing desk. Things like moving your bin away from arms reach, always making your coffee on another floor and moving your printer to the opposite side of the room will prompt you to stand up more frequently throughout the day – small movements which really add up over the course of a year.
  • Give yourself enough time to adequately recuperate after illness or injury – your body needs rest to heal and build muscle.
  • Sleep is essential – the amount required varies from person to person, but in general, you need to get enough sleep to feel generally alert and wakeful for the duration of the day
  • Mix up your training to avoid over-stressing particular muscles and joints, but also to stop it getting boring or too repetitive
  • Be aware that other life stressors can add to the stress of physical training. Don’t be afraid to ease off training a bit during those periods. Sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is just to have a week or two off.
  • Eat to fuel your body properly – and that doesn’t just mean getting enough calories, carbohydrates or protein, but also making sure that you are getting all the essential micronutrients (vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids) too.
  • Consider working with a fitness professional to help you plan an appropriately staged and periodised training programme, if you are a high performance athlete or enjoy training for a significant number of hours per week. Try using the FITT principles to guide your training plan; Frequency, Intensity, Time and Type.
  • Likewise, consider working alongside a functional physiotherapist to help prevent injury as well as treat it – particularly if you are more of a ‘weekend warrior’.

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Handy resources:

For more information on recommendations for exercise, do take a look at the NHS choices website:

For some simple, 10-minute workouts you can do at home:

Advice on exercising in pregnancy:

Spotlight on Exercise, Part 2: The potential risks of over-exercising

Spotlight on Exercise, Part 2: The potential risks of over-exercising

If you are suffering from any condition that may affect your ability to safely exercise, do seek the advice of your GP before attempting any of the advice discussed. As always, what is written here is no substitute for individual medical, fitness or lifestyle advice.

Please do take a look at Part 1, The health benefits of exercise.

It is common for practitioners to skirt around the tricky topic of over-exercising. But in clinic, this is something I often see.

We do need to move, of course, for all the health-giving reasons I highlighted in Part 1 (The health benefits of exercise), and I completely understand that everyone’s abilities and hobbies differ. But pushing ourselves excessively (and that is definitely the key word here) with endless hours of classes, training sessions, long runs, gym time and so on may not necessarily be the best idea for overall health. I sometimes see clients who are so exhausted and stressed and just need to focus on getting some good quality sleep and rest in order to establish a better overall life balance. It can be hard to encourage them to consider meditation or yoga instead of their daily HITT class.

Whilst no single definition of ‘over-exercising’ exists, I tend to think of it as the point at which your body is starting to struggle with the amount of training stress you are asking it to handle, i.e., where the downsides are starting to outweigh the positives.

This tipping point will vary widely between people and their life circumstances. Someone who is happy, stress-free, fit and healthy can potentially handle a higher training load than someone who is under enormous personal pressure, less fit than they used to be and suffering from a chronic disease. Therefore, there cannot be an absolute level at which you can definitively say “this is over-exercise” and “this is not”. It will all depend on the individual.

Having said that, there are a couple of questions that I might ask my clients, to help them to identify for themselves if they might be over-doing it. Whilst this is not a validated test, it may help to prompt a discussion about ways that we could potentially modify (not necessarily stop) an exercise programme if desired:

1. How do you feel emotionally during and after your workout?

– Do you feel excitement and joy during and immediately after your session, followed by a sense of contentment and ease a little while later?
– Or do you feel more panic, anger or anxiety during and immediately after your session, followed by a sense of overwhelm, exhaustion and despair?

2. Do you look forwards to training or dread it?

3. Do you find yourself getting lots of infections or back-to-back injuries?

4. Are you always tired, particularly upon waking?

If you find that your answers to these questions are weighted more towards the negative, then this may be an indication your balance is tipping in the wrong direction and perhaps it’s time to ease off a little.

Effective training can be thought of as a tripod made up of exercise, diet and rest. If all three are not equally addressed, the tripod will tumble and so will your training goals’ – Richard Hannam

When it comes to exercise, I therefore think of it as a bit of a goldilocks phenomenon; not too little, not too much, but just the right amount for you at each point in time is the best bet for optimising health.

The reasons why people over-exercise are, of course, varied. For some, it is simply what is necessary to enable them to compete at a high level. But, perhaps more commonly in my clinic, it is as a result of trying to manage either weight or body image, or a belief that it is somehow necessary to really go hard with the training to be healthy – a conviction that seems to be increasingly fueled by social media and fitness gurus.

Although it is certainly true that a combination of exercise and diet together is the best way to maintain a healthy weight in the long run, we may be more likely to maintain good habits if we are exercising for enjoyment and pleasure, rather than simply as compensation for calories. Remember – exercise should never be considered penance for eating. We need to eat, and we need to move. Neither needs be contingent on the other!

Here are a few potential consequences of over-exercise on health and/or sports performance

  • Dampened immune function, and potentially increased risk of common infections (such as coughs and colds) (Smith, 2003).
  • Gut inflammation and potential increase in intestinal permeability after prolonged periods of intensive exercise (Costa et al., 2017).
  • Irregular menstrual cycles
  • Female infertility (Olive, 2010), particularly if underweight (Rich-Edwards et al., 2002).*
  • Excessive weight loss
  • Excessive fatigue (Meussen et al., 2013)
  • Increased stress, reduced sleep
  • Increased risk of injury, especially if you are more of a ‘weekend warrior’ (Psoinos et al., 2012)
  • Over-training syndrome; where you are continuing to train vigorously, but your performance starts to deteriorate over the long term (Meussen et al., 2013).

*However, in women with a BMI > 25 who undertake vigorous exercise of for <60 minutes per day, there is actually a reduced risk of infertility (Hakimi and Cameron, 2016). So, as with so much of health and nutrition, individual context clearly matters.

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For more information:

The UK register of Exercise Professionals is a good place to start your search for a new fitness instructor to help and support you:

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Next: Part 3, Creating an exercise habit

References & Bibliography:

Barrack, M., Ackerman, K. and Gibbs, J. (2013). Update on the female athlete triad. Current Reviews in Musculoskeletal Medicine, 6(2), pp.195-204.

Costa, R., Snipe, R., Kitic, C. and Gibson, P. (2017). Systematic review: exercise-induced gastrointestinal syndrome-implications for health and intestinal disease. Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics.

Griffiths, M., Szabo, A. and Terry, A. (2005). The exercise addiction inventory: a quick and easy screening tool for health practitioners. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 39(6), pp.e30-e30.

Hakimi, O. and Cameron, L. (2016). Effect of Exercise on Ovulation: A Systematic Review. Sports Medicine.

Lakier Smith, L. (2003). Overtraining, Excessive Exercise, and Altered Immunity. Sports Medicine, 33(5), pp.347-364.

Lee, I., Sesso, H., Oguma, Y. and Paffenbarger, R. (2004). The “Weekend Warrior” and Risk of Mortality. American Journal of Epidemiology, 160(7), pp.636-641.

NICE (2013). Physical activity: brief advice for adults in primary care | Guidance and guidelines | NICE. [online] Available at: [Accessed 9 Jun. 2017].

O’Donovan, G., Lee, I., Hamer, M. and Stamatakis, E. (2017). Association of “Weekend Warrior” and Other Leisure Time Physical Activity Patterns With Risks for All-Cause, Cardiovascular Disease, and Cancer Mortality. JAMA Internal Medicine, 177(3), p.335.

O’Keefe, J., Lavie, C. and Guazzi, M. (2015). Part 1: Potential Dangers of Extreme Endurance Exercise: How Much Is Too Much? Part 2: Screening of School-Age Athletes. Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases, 57(4), pp.396-405.

O’Keefe, J., Patil, H., Lavie, C., Magalski, A., Vogel, R. and McCullough, P. (2012). Potential Adverse Cardiovascular Effects From Excessive Endurance Exercise. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 87(6), pp.587-595.

Olive, D. (2010). Exercise and fertility: an update. Current Opinion in Obstetrics and Gynecology, 22(4), pp.259-263.

Psoinos, C., Emhoff, T., Sweeney, W., Tseng, J. and Santry, H. (2012). The dangers of being a “weekend warrior”. Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, 73(2), pp.469-473.

Rich-Edwards, J., Spiegelman, D., Garland, M., Hertzmark, E., Hunter, D., Colditz, G. and et al. (2002). Physical Activity, Body Mass Index, and Ovulatory Disorder Infertility. Epidemiology, 13(2), pp.184-190.

Roberts, D., Ouellet, J., McBeth, P., Kirkpatrick, A., Dixon, E. and Ball, C. (2014). The “weekend warrior”: Fact or fiction for major trauma?. Canadian Journal of Surgery, 57(3), pp.E62-E68.

Stranahan, A., Lee, K. and Mattson, M. (2008). Central Mechanisms of HPA Axis Regulation by Voluntary Exercise. NeuroMolecular Medicine, 10(2), pp.118-127.

Walsh, N. and Oliver, S. (2015). Exercise, immune function and respiratory infection: An update on the influence of training and environmental stress. Immunology and Cell Biology, 94(2), pp.132-139


Spotlight on Exercise, Part 1: The health benefits of exercise

Spotlight on Exercise, Part 1: The health benefits of exercise

What part should exercise play?

It’s hard to argue with the fact that regular movement is good for our health. As well as playing an important role in helping to prevent heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, some cancers and musculoskeletal problems, exercise can also boost our mood and cognitive function (NICE, 2014) (Kramer and Erickson, 2007). Plus for many people, it can also be a source of great enjoyment, a bit of headspace, a way to unwind and de-stress or an excuse to catch up with mates.

I do also know that this isn’t the case for everyone and many dread doing exercise. Personally, I have to force myself to do it and many of my clients feel the same way. So seeking out ways to enjoy it are key. For me this is being outdoors, with my dogs or with friends rather than being in a gym or class, but each to their own.

I am not a fitness professional. However, I do understand the importance of movement for a healthy mind and body. This 3-part series has been written in collaboration with Richard Hannam, an experienced health and wellbeing physiologist and personal trainer, who has kindly shared his wealth of expertise and knowledge throughout this feature. If you are suffering from any condition that may affect your ability to safely exercise, do seek the advice of your GP before attempting any of the advice discussed. As always, what is written here is no substitute for individual medical, fitness or lifestyle advice.

Whether you love it or hate it, exercise is important, but it is easy to get confused about what we are aiming for and why we are doing it. Social media can make it seem a very off putting and daunting task (only for those with perfect bodies!) and fitness websites can sometimes make it seem that unless you are training everyday, top-to-toe clad in tight fitting Lycra, then it’s not for you. And don’t get me started on how tight and uncomfortable most exercise clothing is, seemingly made for those who are slim and fit and not for those with “normal” bodies. Almost everyone I know and work with wants realistic and enjoyable ways to exercise that isn’t going to cost them a fortune and make them feel bad about themselves.

So I thought I would start by sharing what the UK general recommendations for exercise are, and hopefully show that it isn’t as difficult to achieve / scary / unrealistic as we might think. And, happily, there is no need to join an expensive gym, spend hours lifting weights, or bedeck yourself with fancy fitness gear to achieve these suggestions.

The current UK movement recommendations for healthy adults are as follows (NICE, 2013)

  • Try to be active in some way daily – anything is better than nothing. Even if that’s just 5 minutes a day to start with.
  • Over a week, this could add up to at least 150 minutes of moderate activity (you can choose how you divide those minutes up)
  • Or, comparable benefits can be achieved through at least 75 minutes of vigorous activity spread across the week
  • Or a combination of the two.
  • Try to incorporate some resistance (muscle strength) and balance training twice a week – this is important for bone health and health preservation (such as pilates, yoga and body weight exercises).
  • Everyday movement (walking up stairs, walking to the shops, doing the housework, pottering around etc.) is just as important as formalised ‘exercise’.
  • Many workplaces are now starting to offer the option of standing desks to help minimise the amount of time you spend sitting, or if this isn’t an option, I have found that putting a Sissel SitFit on my desk chair has made a big difference to back aches and pains, and I also find that I just move about a lot more whilst I am working away – I honestly love it (and it’s a bit less cumbersome than an exercise ball).

How to get the right intensity

Working to a ‘perceived intensity’ helps you tailor the activity you are doing to your current level of fitness. Richard uses this simple guide with his clients, called the ‘sing’ test:

Moderate intensity:
Faster breathing, increased heart rate and feeling warmer. In other words, you could still talk, but you couldn’t sing whilst you are moving.

Vigorous intensity:
Hard breathing, rapid heart rate and shortness of breath. In other words, you can neither talk nor sing whilst you are moving.

This is how it could look in real life:

Monday:  Rest day – just pottering about at home or work
Tuesday:  Walk to work and home again (60 minutes moderate cardio)
Wednesday:  Pilates class (strength & balance training)
Thursday:  Spinning, dance or circuits class (45 minutes vigorous cardio)
Friday:  Quick body weight workout at home (strength & balance training)
Saturday:  Bike ride and play in park with kids (60 minutes moderate cardio)
Sunday:  Gardening or general housework (30 minutes moderate cardio)

Exercise doesn’t always need to mean pounding the treadmill hard, or sweating it out in class. Sometimes it can just mean gentle movement therapy. Find a green space and walk around it, do some gentle stretches, swim in the sea, play with your children, potter about the garden. It is all valuable and valid movement”

Handy resources:

For more information on recommendations for exercise, do take a look at the NHS choices website:

For some simple, 10-minute workouts you can do at home:

Advice on exercising in pregnancy:

. . . . . . .


Kramer, A. and Erickson, K. (2007). Capitalizing on cortical plasticity: influence of physical activity on cognition and brain function. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11(8), pp.342-348.

NICE (2014). Physical activity: exercise referral schemes | Guidance and guidelines | NICE. [online] Available at: [Accessed 9 Jun. 2017].