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

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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

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