For many people, moderation is the key to a healthy, happy life. After all, how much fun would life be if you swore off M&Ms forever, or if you always chose exercise over other activities and relationships?

But for some people, the quest to adopt a more healthful lifestyle progresses from earnest to overzealous, and, ironically, these people may end up doing more harm than good.

The Influence of Media Messages

Magazines and websites are brimming with health information. Those same publications often feature stick-like models and personalities. The message? No matter what your size, you can—and should—be thinner.

"The media puts tremendous emphasis on weight and offers images that most people can't attain," says Carol Ewing Garber, PhD, FACSM, director of the Clinical Exercise Physiology Laboratory at Northeastern University's Bouve College of Health Sciences in Boston.

Megan Porter, RD, a dietitian with Kaiser Permanente's Center for Health Research in Portland, Ore. agrees. "The media emphasize negative body images and make people feel bad about themselves," she says.

As a result, some people become overly concerned about their eating and exercising habits.

When "Too Healthy" Is Unhealthy

When people exercise too much or eat too restrictively, they set themselves up for physical, mental, and social problems.

Overdoing exercise can cause overuse injuries, says Dr. Garber. People may also become so fatigued that their usual exercise routine becomes difficult. Their immune systems may also weaken, making them more vulnerable to common illnesses, like colds and the flu. They may even experience depression, nausea, and sleep problems.

Likewise, eating too restrictively can deprive people of valuable minerals and vitamins, most commonly iron, calcium, magnesium, zinc, and vitamin E, Porter explains. Without these nutrients, they risk developing osteoporosis, iron and protein deficiencies, and other problems. An eating obsession can also lead to eating disorders, such as bulimia and anorexia nervosa.

So what's the solution? Recognizing the problem and then working to achieve moderation.

Living in Moderation

Knowing when your eating and exercising habits have gone awry involves paying attention to subtle signs.

To check your exercise habits, evaluate if you've felt depressed, been unusually fatigued, or experienced increased illness or injury. Perhaps you've begun choosing exercise over other activities, like getting together with friends or family or going out to eat. Maybe you have difficulty skipping even one day of exercise, which may be causing problems at work as well.

Problems with eating habits may manifest themselves in behavioral problems. Notice if you've begun isolating yourself from people and eating alone. Have you started getting into patterns with your eating, such as never eating certain foods together or pushing food around on your plate? Do you think about food constantly? Have you divided food into good and bad categories and eat only good foods? If so, Porter says, you may have a problem.

To introduce moderation into your eating and exercising habits, follow these tips:

  • Confide in someone, perhaps a friend, your doctor, or a psychologist. Tell them you're having problems and want help.
  • Choose friends who don't take exercise and eating to the extreme. "Surround yourself with positive influences who can serve as mentors to you," Porter says.
  • See food as fuel. "Food helps us live healthier," Porter says, adding that there's no such thing as bad food.
  • Disrupt your exercise routine. Exercise at a different time of day or choose a new activity. Doing so, Garber suggests, might help break your compulsion to exercise.
  • Gradually cut back your exercise program. "An hour of exercise a few times a week is all you need," says Dr. Garber. In fact, Dr. Garber says you can get a great workout in only 30 minutes a day.
  • Nix the mirrors when exercising, Garber says. Although mirrors encourage good exercise technique, they can make you too engrossed with your appearance.
  • Don't take all health information you read to heart. Evaluate the credibility of the source.
  • Understand that photos of models in magazines have been altered. If you feel bad about yourself after reading magazines or even watching television, turn those images off, Porter says. Ditch the magazines or skip those shows.