These 4 Good Habits Can Actually Be Really Harmful If You Do Them Too Much

As a tireless distance runner, I spend a hearty chunk of every day frolicking on my feet. There’s a good chance that, as you’re reading this, I’m bounding down the bike path miles away from home, hopelessly sucked into the latest true crime podcast or my Calvin Harris playlist on iHeartRadio.

There’s nothing like finding yourself in that hyper-euphoric flow, the sense that you’re weightlessly unstoppable and can float along forever. That is, of course, until you run yourself right into injury, your momentum screeching loudly to a whiplash-worthy halt.

That’s what happened to me a few months ago. At first, it was a simple pull of my calf muscle, a minor tear that would’ve healed in a week. But I was loath to put a pause on my running, so I trudged forward, albeit in pain — until, eventually, I could barely hobble.

After months of physical therapy, weeks of desperate whining, I’m finally able to run again with minimal pain. But my point is that, as frustrating as it was, the process taught me an invaluable lesson: even healthy habits, like running, can become unhealthy when performed to excess — especially when they spiral into obsession.

“If a healthy habit ever becomes so inflexible that it has command over you, rather than you having command over it, issues can arise,” explains Dr. William Orme, a psychologist at Houston Methodist. But “inflexibility surrounding a habit may not be noticeable — or even much of a problem, if it’s a healthy one — until adversity hits,” he says. 

Moderation Is Key

It’s true that positive habits, when practiced in moderation, can reap huge benefits when it comes to your physical, mental, and overall health. But typically, there’s a bit of a Goldilocks effect: practice the behavior too little, and it won’t be of much help at all; practice the behavior too often, and it may bring more harm than good. Instead, it takes a conscious, well-intentioned balance to get the healthy habit just right.

So how do you know when your healthy habit is doing more harm than good? Here, experts reveal four beneficial behaviors that can burn you when pushed to the edge – and strategies to help you find balance.

1. Exercising Too Frequently

As I mentioned, I’m all too familiar with this one; I’m always chasing the runner’s high. In moderation, exercise conveys countless health benefits, whether your workout of choice involves running, strength training, or low-impact cardio. According to research from Harvard Medical School, even walking for just 21 minutes per day can significantly reduce your risk of heart disease and various cancers, lower your blood pressure and cholesterol, combat stress, and improve your sleep quality.

When It Becomes Unhealthy

“An unhealthy fitness habit is one that is not sustainable and/or makes you feel bad both physically and mentally,” explains Luke Deszczulka, a trainer and sports performance coach. “One of the most common ones I see with my clients is excessive exercise, especially when it comes to strength training or running,” he says.

While exercising in moderation can help reduce stress, chronic overexercising can have the opposite effect. “This causes a release of the hormone cortisol, which can lead to weight gain, insulin resistance, and other issues,” Deszczulka says. Excessive exercise can also lead to muscle loss, especially if you are not consuming enough calories to support your activity level. “When you don’t consume enough calories, your body will break down muscle tissue for energy. This is more likely to happen if you are exercising for long periods of time or if you are doing intense workouts,” he explains.

In the long term, overexercising can lead to chronic exhaustion. When you do this, your body doesn’t have time to recover properly between workouts, which can cause insomnia and a decrease in sleep quality. “It can also lead to a buildup of toxins in your muscles, which can lead to inflammation and pain,” Deszczulka points out. Ultimately, higher stress hormones and inflammation can result in a decrease in immunity as well as an increase in depression and anxiety.

What To Do

If you’re feeling chronically fatigued, it’s important to see a doctor to rule out any other possible causes,” Deszczulka advises. “But if you’re sure that over-exercising is to blame, then you need to cut back on your workouts and give your body time to recover.”

2. Eating Too Many Fruits And Vegetables

We’ve all been told to eat our fruits and vegetables – and for good reason. Much like regular exercise, a diet rich in these foods can reduce the risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure, protect against some cancers, and improve blood sugar. Additionally, fruits and vegetables are a good source of fiber, which can help maintain a healthy gut and prevent constipation.

When It Becomes Unhealthy

“Eating fruits and vegetables can be overdone! Diet culture says we need to eat as many as possible, in place of other foods, to be healthy. That’s not quite the truth,” says Melissa Landry, a registered dietitian specializing in intuitive eating. 

Yes, fruits and vegetables are an essential part of a balanced diet. But “if fruits and vegetables are used just to fill you up or to edge out other foods — like eating an apple when you really wanted sweets — you may experience symptoms like gas, bloating, constipation, and mental symptoms like deprivation, desire to binge eat, and a preoccupation with food in general,” Landry explains. “This physical and mental experience is often unlivable, which is one reason why many diets fail.”

What To Do

Rather than force yourself to eat fruits and vegetables whenever you feel hungry, consider which fruits and vegetables make you feel the best physically, and eat them when you find them most satisfying, Landry advises. “This will help you to create a routine of eating them that feels natural and sustainable,” she says.

Still struggling to design a balanced diet, or feeling pressured to stick to a specific routine? “If you do experience GI or mental health symptoms related to eating healthy, work with an anti-diet dietitian who can help you decide which types and how often to incorporate fruits and vegetables for your specific health goals, while also fostering a balanced and healthy relationship to food,” Landry says. “This way, you don’t deal with any of the symptoms that even short-term overconsumption of fruits and vegetables can cause.”

3. Taking Excessive Supplements

According to national nutrition surveys, most Americans do not get all of the vitamins and minerals they need from food alone. Plus, research shows that our bodies become less efficient at absorbing nutrients as we age. Supplements like vitamin D and calcium, as long as they are tested and verified by a third-party organization, can help bridge the nutritional gap and help support bone density, nerve function, and immune health, among other benefits.

When It Becomes Unhealthy

“Supplements are just that – supplements, to an otherwise balanced diet,” says Trista Best, a registered dietitian and nutrition professor. “They should not be relied upon to avoid or ignore healthy eating patterns.”

Ideally, you should be getting most of your nutrition from real food and take supplements in moderation. Megadosing on supplements can cause a number of unpleasant — or even dangerous — side effects. Too much vitamin C or zinc, for example, can lead to gastrointestinal symptoms like diarrhea, cramps, or nausea. Too much calcium — a condition called  hypercalcemia — can lead to weakened bones, kidney problems, and heart irregularities.

What To Do

“Clearing your supplements with your healthcare provider is important,” emphasizes Best. “This can also prevent any drug or nutrient interactions that can be dangerous or cause your medications to be ineffective.”

4. Drinking Too Much Water

As a runner, you don’t have to tell me twice to stay hydrated – I’m always gulping down water or my favorite electrolyte beverage. The evidence-based benefits of drinking water are practically common sense: it aids digestion, lubricates the joints, carries oxygen to the cells, promotes kidney function, and even can protect against hangovers. Not drinking enough water can cause dehydration, which ultimately leads to urinary and kidney problems.

When It Becomes Unhealthy

Yes, it is possible to drink too much water. Overhydration leads to hyponatremia, a condition in which the sodium in your body is diluted. When this occurs, your cells begin to swell, which can trigger symptoms like nausea and vomiting, headache, muscle weakness, seizures, and mental status change. Hyponatremia can be life-threatening because rapid brain swelling can lead to coma and death.

“The most common thing is that, in the summer when people are told to drink a lot, they maybe take it a little bit too far,” says Dr. Christ McStay, a professor of emergency medicine. “If you’re drinking two, three, or four liters an hour, and you’re not losing a ton by sweating, you basically begin to exceed the amount that the body can excrete – and that’s when you get in trouble.”

What To Do

In general, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends that men drink 15.5 cups of fluids per day and women drink 11.5 cups of fluids per day. Of course, the exact amount will depend on your activity level and factors like the heat and humidity. Still, many experts say that thirst is a good indicator of how much you should drink – and when to put down the glass.

“Thirst is an evolutionarily conserved mechanism to make sure that we drink an adequate amount of fluids but not too much,” says Dr. Mitchell Rosner, a nephrologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “What I tell people is to get a sense of your thirst. Drink until you’re not thirsty, but don’t drink above that. And if you do that, you’ll be fine.”

Copy that. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll hop out for a run – not too short, not too long, but, hopefully, just right and healthy.


Have you had a healthy habit spiral into a harmful obsession? Tell us in the comments!

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