The Why (Not) Exercise

Updated: Sep 30, 2021

Good morning fitness buddies! I am including an additional blog this week to address recent events that took place at the Olympic Games in Tokyo.

For those of you who have been following part or all of the televised portions, you probably are familiar with the specific incident to which I am referring. If not, a very talented and well known athlete has withdrawn from several meets citing mental health issues.

In my most recent blog that posted Sunday morning, I talked about how exercise can make a person happy by releasing chemicals called neurotransmitters that can affect a persons mood in a positive way. For a recreational athlete or weekend warrior, this is true. However, what I didn't exclusively mention is the other side of why working out can actually be dangerous. What? Really? Why is that you ask?

Well before I answer that I just want you all to know that I show no bias or judgment but am merely trying to present both sides and let you form your own opinions and thoughts. Also keep in mind that I grew up in competitive sports and found myself in a similar situation so can relate to the individual and speak with authority and first hand knowledge of what goes on "behind the scenes" so to speak.

Going back to my earlier question and speaking on the side of current and former athletes all over the world that endure strict training regimens, "Is there such a thing as dangerous exercise?" The answer is most definitely yes.

Individuals that compete at an elite level usually spend 8-10 hours a day in training mode. It's comparable to a non-athlete working a full-time becomes their life's work. While a "normal" individual doesn't begin a job until well into high school, an Olympic hopeful most often begins their career as a young child when their body and mind is still developing. Granted, at younger ages you don't typically find rigorous schedules, but for a prodigy or "natural" that can change quickly. Additionally, the better your skills become, the more time is spent training and learning new tricks. In terms of responsibility, think of this as progressing from a custodian to a manager.

The lower level employee usually takes direction from higher tenured individuals whereas someone in a management role leads others to be successful. In the specific incident with which I opened this blog, the aforementioned athlete was, in essence, placed in a leadership role to guide a team to victory. Although they had prior Olympic experience, their role was substantially different five years ago. Not everyone is cut out to be a leader and many of the competitors you see at this level are still teenagers and finding themselves. Placing them in adult roles or as captains adds pressure for which they may not know how to appropriately handle.

During my competitive years, I had a few teammates whose coaches and/or parents pushed them to be Olympians and demanded operfection at practices or when learning new skills. I could hear my friends getting chewed out for falling off the beam or executing a move with bent knees or less than perfect form. In my opinion, this adds undue pressure to what is already stressful enough.

Now add to all of this the media attention that outwardly shares expectations of how an individual or team should perform in their events in comparison to the rest of the world and the stress is magnified 1000 times. They enter competition thinking: "What if I let my family and friends down? How will my coach feel if I don't bring home gold? Or my country?" These are a just a few things that go through their minds before, during and after their specific events. Some athletes are naturally very self-critical and driven so any mistakes they make are compartmentalized and internalized which makes the goals they place on themselves sometimes almost impossible to achieve and far from realistic. At this point the why am I doing this comes into play and burnout or major injuries start becoming more frequent.

An injury can knock any athlete out of a competition, game, or match and cause a setback in training. For an athlete this is further stress because they now feel "behind" the rest of their field and have to work twice as hard to return to sport or be in medal contention (top three). This complicates their career and some athletes wonder if they made the right choice in the first place or will ever return to play at all. Self doubt can lead to a lot of emotional trauma for serious competitors which, in turn, affects their overall performance and occasionally their health. If not addressed the underlying cause can be deterimental to an athlete possibly forcing an early end to their career.

Fortunately, for the competitor discussed earlier in this post, that has not yet happened, but for more than a few athletes the excessive practice time and pressure from external sources has become a reality. Coaches and parents want to see their future Olympians succeed and often make sacrifies to give their children the best chance to do so. However, there comes a time when these sacrifices becomes so unbearable a decision must be made as to whether it is safe (physically and mentally) to continue pursuing their dream.

As a former elite level athlete, due to a severe back injury, my time came before I had completed what I had set out to do, but luckily for the majority of others it is merely a decision to retire before the body and/or mind reach their breaking point.

Taking the side of the opposition, I have heard others say that athletes at this level are trained to handle the pressure of major competitions or that they know what they signed up for when they went to trials. Yes, Olympic athletes have a different mentality than a weekend warrior, little league baseball player or pee wee football player because they can (and do) endure things the average person cannot. Some are "escaping" toxic environments and get a release from consistent rigorous regimens. Furthermore, they understand the dedication it will take to achieve a high level of success so in that sense they do have a general idea of what they're getting themselves into.

Highly competitive athletes have a never give up mentality so for them quitting isn't an option. By withdrawing from a competition that is essentially giving up on yourself, teammates and everyone that has supported you along the way.

I have also heard that this specific incident could be politically motivated and is being compared to a situation with a former NFL quarterback. Because of their popularity and/or status, athletes are perfect candidates to bring awareness to certain platforms. They are constantly in the spotlight and tend to hold clout over someone not in the public eye. Since there are a lot of sports televised that have millions of viewers worldwide, what better place to get people talking about an issue or concern?

Now that both sides have been mentioned, I am not supporting a particular side, just merely relaying points from both. Because we come from varying backgrounds and are all unique, we have differing opinions and thoughts regarding why people act and/or react they way they do.

Exercise as a whole can alter ones mood and give a person a much more positive outlook on life but can also effect it in ways we don't see from the outside. I am in no way discouraging anyone from exercise, just encouraging you to know when it's time to walk away. If it's no longer enjoyable or fun, re-evaluate your why exercise. It may be your turn to why NOT.

Lastly, I applaud this athlete for knowing enough about their own body to seek help and thank the IOC for implementing sport psychologists at major competitions to assist athletes feeling the weight of the world on their shoulders. While many are looked upon as role models and superheroes with magical powers, they are, after all, human. And yes, they have feelings too. It's about time they are speaking out and getting noticed.

Quote of the day:

"Fitness is 100% mental. Your body doesn't go where your mind doesn't push it."

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