Any doctor, lifestyle guru or dietician will tell you that exercise is a hugely important part of any healthy lifestyle.
The question is, can we have too much of a good thing?
When it comes to physical activity, the answer is a resounding yes; excessive exercise can have a hugely detrimental impact on the human body and mind.
As a result, it is of paramount importance that we understand exactly how to make our workouts work for us, and ensure that we stay safe1.
How Much Exercise Is Enough?
We all exercise for a variety of reasons, whether that's to merely maintain a healthy weight and reduce the risk of chronic illness later in life, or to reduce our BMIs to a lower score.
Younger and older people will also have different requirements, but lets take a look at how much physical activity the typical American adult should be engaging in, to ensure a longer, fitter life.
Government guidelines suggest that we should be seeking 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week, spread as evenly as possible throughout those seven days, and potentially doubling to 300 minutes per week over time2.
Moderate-intensity activities include speed walking, cycling across a flat surface, hiking, team sports such as basketball or volleyball, or even manually pushing a lawn mower around your yard.
The key to noting whether you are successfully achieving this level of intensity is that you should still be able to hold a conversation, but singing along to the MP3 that you will no doubt be using as motivation, should be beyond you.
If time is against you and you fear that you may not be able to dedicate this many hours to exercising, an alternative would be to partake in vigorous physical activity for 75 minutes per week, eventually rising to 150.
This kind of exercise involves an increased rate of cardio, and thus centers on such activities as running, lane swimming, cycling harder terrain, aerobics classes or even using a jump rope.
You should be red in the face and breathing heavily after a bout of vigorous exercise.
In addition to these activities, it is advisable to work on all major muscles, such as those in your limbs, chest and back, at least twice a week. However, what's the worst that could happen if you're in a hurry to shed a few pounds and fit into your favorite dress within a couple of weeks?
The Physical Impact of Excessive Exercise
Obviously the first risk of exercising to excess is injury, especially if you leap into a regime without first building up a core tolerance for your body.
Unless you have warmed up appropriately and prepared yourself for the intense activity, you could be subjecting your muscles and joints to all kinds of wear and tear, including potentially permanent damage.
It's hugely important that you listen to the limits of your bodies endurance, and learn the difference between good pain and bad3
– every individual has a different tolerance based on their existing health and medical history,
If you are exercising to excess, you may also be depriving your body of an equally important element of the process – recovery.
Physical activity should leave you feeling on top of the world, not lethargic with stiff, heavy legs and aches all over your body.
If this begins to happen, cut down on the intensity a little. Your body is trying to send you a message that you are subjecting it to more than it can reasonably be expected to cope with, and you will need to slowly and steadily build up your endurance.
Life is not a race, so there is no hurry to achieve huge levels of fitness.
Overtraining can also have a detrimental effect on your heart4, which defies the very point of running for many of us.
Keep an eye on your resting heart rate before you take up your exercise regime, and make a note of it afterward.
If you find that the organ is working at a rate of five beats per minute faster, or even more, then it's a sign that you are pushing yourself too hard and placing a huge strain on your cardiovascular system.
Another symptom of excessive exercise is perspiration and constant dehydration, no matter how much water you drink.
This could lead to bloating, which may lead you to work out harder in an attempt to rid yourself of this unwelcome sensation, thus creating something of a vicious cycle.
a little ‘sweat’ is good for the body to remove toxins,
but this doesn’t mean you should create rivers of it to prove that you are pushing yourself to your limit.
Take heed of what your body is telling you, not necessarily your physical trainer or coach, the most enthusiastic of which will continually preach their mantra of ‘faster, longer, harder, more’ – having said that, let’s not tarnish all trainers with the same brush, as most of them are more realistic and mindful of each individuals capabilities.
Unless you are already a trained athlete, this mantra does not apply to simply keeping fit.
There can be other significant symptoms of overtraining/exercising, some of which are physical, and others psychological. You must be aware of both sides of the coin.
The Mental Impact of Excessive Exercise
While it's easy to concern ourselves with the physical repercussions of excessive exercise, it's important not to forget the impact it can also have on our mental health.
It's well known that exercise floods our brains with all kinds of lovely endorphins, dopamine, seretone and adrenaline5
– similar to tucking into everybody’s favorite comfort food, chocolate.
However, just as we're warned that the sugar contained with this sweet treat can become addictive and lead to health complications, the same can be said for exercise if we do not manage our physical activity.
If exercise goes beyond a health benefit and becomes a compulsion, it can be every bit as damaging as other forms of obsessive control, such as eating disorders.
Somebody who exercises to extreme levels could be neglecting other areas of their life and mental health that require attention, and while a lack of physical activity can contribute to diagnoses of depression and anxiety, the same can be said for excessive training.
Firstly, there is the risk of injury that we have previously discussed.
If you go from building your life around a fitness regime to finding yourself unable to lift a muscle it will be hugely detrimental to your sense of worth, in addition to leaving you at risk of withdrawal symptoms.
Then comes the risk of exhaustion, which can be mental as much as physical.
Somebody who engages in too much physicality may find himself or herself regularly tired and irritable, or even feeling guilty about the fact that they are not in the gym, which is not a positive headspace for anyone to find themselves in.
The American Psychological Association does not currently recognize exercise addiction as a mental disorder, but there are a number of warning signs that it pays to be vigilant in keeping an eye out for6.
- Be mindful if worry sets in, if you miss exercise or a workout session and feel guilty. There is nothing wrong with that, it is not a critical mistake and will do you no harm.
- Never put your physical activities first in line, make sure other important aspects of your life are not affected, such as work, ‘play’, family time and simply, enjoying yourself.
- Remember, that having fun playing football or games with the children in the fresh air, is still exercising, whilst relaxing your mind at the same time.
- Another important factor is taking rest or recovery days, they must be built into your schedule, particularly if you have had a debilitating illness such as a chest infection, or an injury.
- Above all, NEVER cut out meals if you have not been able to exercise. This is not a substitute for missing an exercise session or going out for a power walk. If you reach this stage of guilt, it is the first step to eating disorders. Keep your relationship with exercise at a healthy level – you rule it, it doesn’t rule you.
Never lose sight of the fact that exercise is designed to make you feel better, not worse.
Following these tips when applying exercise to our daily routines is a sure-fire way of preventing physical and mental burnout and ensuring that we remain in optimum condition, body and mind.
Surely that’s what we’re looking to achieve when we put ourselves through our paces?