How Much is Too Much Exercise?

You think those killer workouts are doing your body good, but there is such a thing as too much exercise. I remember one horrifying morning when I stepped on the scale to find that my weight had soared by six pounds. So I did what many of us do—I hit the gym hard to work it all off. My body, however, was not prepared for the three weeks of relentless pounding that would soon commence, and it let me know by succumbing to the worst flu I’ve ever experienced—not to mention the sore muscles. The moral? You need to know when to call it quits, or you could wind up jeopardizing your health.

So how do you determine when it’s time to throw in the gym towel? Everyone has a different exercise tolerance, so there’s no one-size-fits-all threshold; however, a good start is to avoid targeting the same muscles for strength training two days in a row. Overtraining occurs when you don’t allow sufficient recovery time after exercise, and muscles need at least 24 hours to recover from a weight session, according to the Mayo Clinic. You can perform cardio exercise every day, but stay within the realm of your fitness level. Thirty to 60 minutes of aerobic exercise per day, five days a week, is a healthy goal.

Most importantly, listen to your body: The typical signs of overtraining include constantly sore muscles, headaches, trouble sleeping, reduced athletic performance, poor coordination and slowed healing times. You may lose your desire for food, and your resting heart rate and blood pressure may spike. Overtraining causes psychological symptoms, too. You’re more likely to feel depressed, irritable and anxious.

Over time, overtraining can take a serious toll on your health. The excessive activity may cause stress fractures, interfering with your ability to walk. The repetition also harms muscles and joints, and in extreme cases you may need joint surgery to repair the damage. Women may even be more susceptible to osteoporosis, especially if overtraining is paired with a reduced-calorie diet. 

According to Theresa Fassihi, Ph.D., of the The Menninger Clinic, people who are compulsive about exercise are most likely to overtrain. If you feel extreme guilt over missing gym sessions, are compelled to exercise even in poor health, or exhibit addictive behaviors towards exercise you may be on the wrong track. Working out should be an enjoyable experience that promotes good health, not an obsession that wears down your body. 

So you think you’re overtraining. What now? The first step is to identify any compulsive behavior, and seek counseling if you’ve become psychologically dependent on heavy exercise. If your problem is more of a temporary overzealousness, as was the case with me, it’s time to stop all exercise until your body has a chance to recover. That means no workouts for at least a week or two, according to WebMD. However, the healing process could take up to a month in severe cases. Once you do get back on the exercise wagon, plan a reasonable workout schedule, consulting a personal trainer if necessary. 

image: mikebaird