On Vitality

The neuroscience of creating vitality

Going to Extremes

New studies reveal that too much exercise can be detrimental to your health.

The subject of beauty, especially as it radiates outward from the recesses of our minds, behavior and life choices, is my passion. I've been known to take that passion to extremes on occasion: traveling from pillar to post speaking about my book, The Beauty Prescription, working crazy hours (until recently) as both a faculty member and a clinician, and speaking and writing in every venue possible about the idea that true beauty is far more than skin deep. Extremes are fine when utilized sparingly and in the service of something that gives your life meaning and purpose. But in general, when we're talking about beauty, extremes are kryptonite.

Think about some of the extremes women go to in order to adhere to conventional notions of what the modern, beautiful, successful woman should be: eating disorders, excessive plastic surgery, substance abuse, working endless hours. All extreme behaviors, none of them healthy, all of them ultimately damaging to the purpose they were intended to serve: being more beautiful inside and out. I would argue that instead, moderation is the magic elixir women (and men) are looking for. After all, we're always talking about "balance"; why are we so unbalanced?

A great example of this appeared recently in Tara Parker-Pope's Well blog on the New York Times website. Titled "Phys Ed: Does Exercise Boost Immunity?" The piece talks about two mouse experiments published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity that showed that while moderate exercise appears to make mice less likely to die from a virulent flu virus, extreme exercise makes the mice drop at a far higher rate even compared to sedentary mice. The researchers aren't certain why this is the case, but they suspect that in extreme exercise like marathons or triathlons, where studies have shown reduced levels of T-1 helper immune cells, the body suppresses its immune response in order to prevent runaway inflammation due to the damage that such extreme exercise inflicts on joints, muscles and internal organs. But this short-term action leaves such athletes much more vulnerable to viral infections. Moderate exercise, on the other hand, confers a protective effect, boosting immunity.

Too bad for the mice, right? But think about the women you know who seem obsessed with working out, like they are trying to outrace the clock and the natural aging we all must deal with. How many of them are always sick, nursing some injury, or seem to miss out on the feelings of well-being that regular exercise can bring? Anything, no matter how beneficial, carried to an extreme can be dangerous. Drinking too much water can kill. These studies reveal that exercise, which we think of as life- and beauty-enhancing, can harm both if carried to an unhealthy extreme.

Our quest for total beauty would be much better served by balance, moderation and the perspective that one workout, one meal or one visit to the salon isn't going to change everything. Instead we should be making wise, healing, and disciplined choices, forgiving ourselves for not being perfect, and remembering to appreciate and love who we are today. In time, moderate changes that are sustainable really do transform lives. That's the path to real beauty.

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Eva Ritvo, M.D. is vice chair of psychiatry at the University of Miami and co-author of The Beauty Prescription: The Complete Formula for Looking and Feeling Beautiful.

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