Are You Working Out Too Much?
You won’t be surprised to hear that exercise is great for our bodies. Physical activity benefits bone health, weight control, heart health, mood, and much more. But you might be surprised to learn that there is such a thing as too much exercise.
In this blog, we’ll explore what it means to over-exercise, the symptoms and health consequences of working out too much, and how to get back to a beneficial exercise routine.
What does it mean to work out too much?
While yes, your body was made to move, too much physical activity can actually harm your body and negatively impact your overall health. According to the National Institute of Health, there are two main ways that people can find themselves working out too much:
Overtraining → When you push yourself too hard too quickly, you’re likely overtraining. Sports medicine experts agree that the intensity, duration, and length of workouts should all be increased gradually to avoid harmful side effects. Some signs that you’re overtraining include:
Not enough rest days between workouts
Inadequate nutrition for the exercise you’re doing
Too little sleep
Working out too intensely
Not limiting your workouts when sick or stressed
Ramping up a training program too quickly
Compulsive exercising → According to the NHS, compulsive exercising occurs when exercise begins to feel like something you have to do or it becomes addictive. Symptoms of exercise addiction include feeling like exercise has control over your life and has a big influence on your sense of self-worth and identity. ScienceNordic has created a helpful quiz to see if you’re addicted to exercise.
Signs that you’re overexercising:
Some of the signs and symptoms that you’re working out too much include:
Your muscles feel sore for a week after your workout. According to most fitness experts, muscle soreness should actually only last for four days at most. If you’re still sore for a week or more, you’re likely pushing your body too hard.
You’re experiencing inflammation. Inflammation is another sign that you’re working out too much.
You find yourself getting sick more often. Working out can typically benefit your immune system. But if you overdo it, your immune system will struggle to function well, causing you to catch a cold more easily.
It is common for you to injure yourself while working out. Working out too much can lead to your muscles getting overworked, which can lead to more frequent injuries.
You constantly feel fatigued, irritable, and exhausted. This is an obvious one. But if you feel like you can never get enough sleep and catch up to your exhaustion, you’re probably working out too much.
You find yourself getting tired early into your workouts. This premature muscle fatigue is usually is a sign that you’re working out too much.
Your resting heart rate has increased. While frequent exercise will lower your resting heart rate, overexercising will actually have the opposite effect. Most really fit people have a resting heart rate below 50 or 60 bpm. But if you’re working out every day and have a heart rate higher than that, you’re probably overdoing it.
Your heart rate variability (HRV) is low. You want your resting heart rate to be low, but you also want your HRV to be high. A high HRV means your body does a good job recovering from stress (like a workout). A low HRV means your body doesn’t recover well, a common symptom of working out too much.
Your sleep patterns have altered. Sleeplessness, waking up frequently at night, and having a hard time falling asleep are all signs that you’re overexercising.
Changes in appetite. Interestingly, overexercising can lead to both a loss of appetite and an overwhelming desire to eat all the time.
You struggle to feel happy. While working out does boost your happy hormones, working out too much will have the opposite effect. Your hormones will struggle to regulate properly if you’re constantly exhausting your body.
Why is working out too much a bad thing?
Beyond the above symptoms, working out too often can lead to a number of short and long-term health problems.
In the short term, as described above, overexercising can cause notable effects on your energy level and mood. The National Academy of Sports Medicine defines irritation, anger, sleep problems, difficulty at work or school, and lack of enjoyment in life as all symptoms of fatigue and low energy associated with working out too much. Other short term health effects of overexercising include:
Decline in skin, hair, and nail health
Undesired weight gain or weight loss
Digestive issues like diarrhea, loss of appetite, and constipation
Repeated infections with colds or upper respiratory tract infections
Exercise-related injuries such as tendonitis, tendon tears, stress fractures, and muscle strains
In the long term, the consequences of working out too much can be very serious. Rhabdomyolysis (rhabdo) is a medical condition that can be caused by overexercising. Rhabdo is caused by repeated muscle damage that results in the breakdown of muscle. When a muscle is broken down, proteins and electrolytes are released into the blood. Too much of this in the blood can lead to organ damage, specifically the heart and kidneys. There is also evidence that over time, too much exercise can contribute to or exacerbate preexisting mental health conditions like OCD, anxiety, and depression.
Moreover, working out too much can lead to mitochondrial damage throughout the body. One study found that after an intense week of very excessive training, participants’ mitochondrial respiration (a sign of their overall health) fell by 40%. In her own patients, Dr. Johnson has seen that for people who overexercise, their level of mitochondrial damage is similar to that of someone with chronic fatigue. As we have detailed before, mitochondrial damage should be avoided at all costs. Mitochondrial damage is a characteristic of nearly every chronic disease, including:
Neurodegenerative diseases: Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis
Diabetes and metabolic syndrome
Autoimmune diseases: multiple sclerosis, systemic lupus erythematosus, type I diabetes
Cardiovascular diseases: heart and vascular conditions like atherosclerosis
Neurobehavioral and psychiatric diseases: autism spectrum disorders, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, mood disorders
Musculoskeletal diseases: fibromyalgia, skeletal muscle hypertrophy, and atrophy
The same study found that following the week of intense workouts, participants also experienced a decrease in glucose tolerance. This decrease was so significant that the researchers compared it to changes commonly seen in people who are in the early stages of insulin resistance or diabetes.
What to do if you’re overexercising?
If you feel like we’ve described a lot of your symptoms in this blog and convinced you that you’re working out too much, the most important thing to do next is to rest. Ideally, you should try to take a week or two off training completely. According to the NHS, this should be enough time for your energy levels, motivation, and mood to return to your normal levels.
After your two weeks of R&R, you need to make sure you don’t jump right back into your unhealthy ways. You should try to prioritize:
Hydration → Drinking enough water is key in ensuring that your body stays in peak condition while you work out. Staying hydrated will also help to ease muscle pain.
Following a healthy diet → When you start exercising again, make sure that you’re getting enough nutrients to supply your body.
Sleep → Sleep is an essential part of making sure your body has the proper energy to get through your workouts. Making sure you have good sleep hygiene is a great way to ensure a great night’s sleep.
Take rest days → The NIH recommends taking at least one day off from exercise every 7 days and taking at least 6 hours between workouts to ensure your body has recovered.
Don’t overdo it → Try not to exercise when your body is under a lot of stress, like in extreme cold or heat. This also means that when you’re stressed in general, it might be good to skip the workout.
Trust us, we know it can be hard to not feel like you have to work out every day, especially around the holiday season. But by doing so, you might actually be doing far more harm than good. Instead of stressing out over a workout, “healthify” your recipes or follow one from our recipe book to ensure you don’t get off track with your health goals this winter.
For more information about how to correct your overexercise habits, click here to contact us, or call 276-235-3205 to schedule your complimentary discovery call with Dr. Johnson.
The Johnson Center for Health services patients in-person in our Blacksburg and Virginia Beach / Norfolk locations. We also offer telemedicine for residents of Virginia and North Carolina!