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Germany

Working Out Is Good For You ... Until It's Not

In Germany, eight university hospitals have opened outpatient sports psychiatry facilities to treat depression for the “over-worked-out.”

Sound body, unsound mind?
Sound body, unsound mind?
Claudia Liebram

BERLIN — These days, anybody who doesn’t work out for at least an hour and a half a week has to ask themselves if they really, truly care about their health. But as is so often the case in life, here too it seems that too much of a good thing can be, well, bad. Doctors are cautioning that people who exercise beyond their personal limits are actually harming themselves, physically and psychologically.

“For decades, professional athletes have been going beyond their limits, and they have to,” explains Valentin Z. Markser of the German Association of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy (DGPPN). The association’s specialized doctors are conducting research within a newly created DGPPN department — sports psychiatry — to find out more about both the benefits of exercise and the relationship between sports and some mental illnesses. The resulting study should shed light on how much physical exertion is healthy and at what point it could pose a threat to mental health.

“The borders between performance sports and mass sports are getting fuzzy,” Markser says. Fitness studios, open 24/7, or marathons hosted by many large cities are like challenges to those who are overly body-conscious or expect too much from their bodies.

“That’s when the point is no longer about feeling good or healthy and starts being about records and performance,” Markser continues. Non-professionals tend to overestimate their resilience and don’t give their bodies enough rest time. In some cases, they work out for three or more hours, five to seven times a week, until their body begins to complain. Then they go to the doctor to deal with pain or what they describe as muscle issues.

But what may really lurk behind the discomfort is depression, particularly when people report feeling blue or having less drive than usual. What tends to happen when physical ills accumulate is that performance starts to decline, despite the usual workouts, and the desire to exercise begins to wane. “That’s when it's tougher for a doctor to make a diagnosis,” Markser says. Which is where sports psychiatrists come in. So far, eight university hospitals in Germany have opened outpatient sports psychiatry facilities for the “over-worked-out.”

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