EXTREME HAS NOW GONE MAINSTREAM
From ultra marathons to competitive yoga, ‘regular’ people now take on sports that were once the preserve of elite athletes. Are we damaging our bodies, asks Lucy Fry
Are women exercising too hard?
Why does everything always have to be so extreme?’ my mother asks me as I tell her that I’ve upped my exercise as a New Year’s resolution, with a view to doing an Olympic- distance triathlon (1,500m swim, 40k cycle ride and 10k run) in August. And maybe — because somehow an Olympic-distance triathlon feels a bit normal — a half ironman (1,900m swim, 90k cycle and 21k run), too.
Is it extreme? I wonder. Half marathons certainly aren’t these days. A half ironman, granted, is more extreme, but even that seems almost commonplace, and certainly not something that shocks my 30-something professional friends. What was previously a mark of a serious athlete is almost mediocre now. Even royals and socialites are on the endurance bandwagon — Prince Harry recently trekked to the South Pole, last year Pippa Middleton completed the 42km ski marathon at Engadin, Switzerland, and our own Bressie decided to forgo the recent Christmas celebrations to train for an Ironman event. And the consensus seems to be that if you want to impress people or to raise large amounts of cash for charity, you’d better pick something original. Like the friends of mine who ran 12 marathons in 12 days.
With these kinds of people out there for inspiration, it’s hardly surprising that some of us feel a bit inferior. But must we 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. Certainly with regard to 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 an Olympic gold medallist when we’re also trying to hold down full-time jobs, relationships, social lives and everything else.
What’s more, we can’t 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 and fast for two days out of seven. What’s next? Eating on two days and fasting on five? Healthcare and lifestyle expert Dr Sneh Khemka says, ‘When trying to kickstart our health, it can feel as though taking up a new extreme programme might be the best solution, but this is rarely the case. Restricting kilojoules through crash dieting, for example, can trick the body into thinking there’s a famine.’ And under such ‘famine’ conditions, we cling to our fat, making it harder to lose than if we were to eat regular, balanced meals. Then there’s the effect on mood and emotional health. ‘Extreme dieting or detox can cause emotional difficulties,’ says Dr Khemka. ‘As blood glucose fluctuates, so does your mood, with low blood sugar causing irritability and lethargy. Detoxing can also affect cortisol and noradrenaline levels, which are in part responsible for how you feel.’
Personal trainer and sportswear designer Charli Cohen agrees that high levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) are to be avoided at all costs. She says, ‘While bursts of cortisol can be good for the body, the chronic and high elevation created by longterm overtraining and undereating is counterproductive. At best, it will result in a weight-loss plateau and, at worst, it could cause lasting damage to your metabolism. A sustained calorie deficit causes levels of crucial hormones, such as those produced by the thyroid, leptin and insulin, to fall, slowing down the metabolism and promoting fat storage over muscle retention. The more extensive this muscle loss is, the longer it takes to reverse it, both in terms of regulating hormone levels and rebuilding muscle mass. The latter can take years.’
Hormonal imbalances aren’t the only issue either. ‘Excessive dieting and training can lead to skeletal and muscular injuries, osteoporosis, amenorrhea [when periods stop due to being underweight] and extreme fatigue,’ says Charli. ‘Not to mention the potential psychological repercussions, such as anxiety, depression and eating disorders.’
Charli doesn’t just speak as a fitness professional but as the survivor of an eating and exercise disorder. Her descent into anorexia began innocently: ‘Like many people, I started out with just a little weight to lose, so I tried various diet and exercise methods. 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 and another two hours at the gym after school. At 17, emaciated and depressed, I finally faced facts: what had started off as “just a diet” had developed into a full-blown eating disorder.’ After a year spent trying to remind her body what normal eating was and repair her metabolism, Charli embarked on a balanced four-year plan to reverse the physical ramifications of her extreme exercise and eating habits. Now 25 and eight years into her recovery, she has finally downgraded the osteoporosis (caused by undereating and overexercising) to osteopenia (low bone density, but a stage before osteo-porosis) and had her first period in eight years.
Psychotherapist and eating- disorder specialist Emmy Gilmour 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 goalposts are constantly shifting. This kind of