Integrative Nutrition Blog

When Does Exercise Stop Being Healthy?

August 16, 2016

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The steady parade of athletes at the Olympic Games in Rio is very inspiring! Super-athletes seem to be more and more prevalent: Simone Biles, Katie Ledecky, Michael Phelps, Allyson Felix, Usain Bolt. Their incredible raw talent is undeniable, but even more impressive is the amount of time they've spent perfecting their sports. For example, Phelps swims six hours a day for six days a week, on top of spending an hour a day in the weight room to strengthen his muscles.

That schedule might suit an Olympian, but is probably unrealistic for the average person and might do more harm than good. Although most of us probably could benefit from a few more hours of exercise a week, it is possible to overdo it.

In fact, breaking a sweat at least once a day becomes a full-blown addiction for some. 

There is no doubt that exercise inherently makes us feel good. Chemically, it produces endorphins, which improve mood and can fight depression. Mentally, it relieves stress, energizes, and improves our confidence. Physically, it increases longevity and helps us maintain a healthy body composition. And it's usually pretty fun (as long as burpees aren't involved). But when your life starts to revolve around your workout schedule, it might be time to examine your relationship with exercise.

Overexercising is a real thing—nearly 10 percent of high-performance runners and bodybuilders have an exercise addiction. Sometimes, obsession with exercise comes from the need to have control and order, and can take the form of someone who's extremely disciplined about his or her workouts. For example, someone who is overexercising might work out in the early morning and late in the evening after work, even though they're totally exhausted. Or, they'll train endlessly for long distance races without scheduling rest breaks or allowing their bodies to fully recover. Still, for others, it might be part of their job—professional athletes do have to train more than the average person, but their bodies also require the proper recovery time needed to perform at high levels. 

We all have different threshold for physical activity. Some of us feel our best with a few 30-minute sweat sessions a couple times a week, while others prefer to run five miles a day.

So how do you know for sure if you might be over exercising?

Use this rule: If you're exercising more than six hours a week and your sweat schedule impedes on your social life, work, and the quality of your relationships, it might be helpful to slow down.

In the case of exercise, more is not necessarily better. There can be some serious side effects to pushing your body too hard for too long. Be on the lookout for any of these symptoms—if they apply to you, it's worth checking in with a doctor and possibly scaling back your workout schedule.

1. Fatigue
No matter how much sleep you get, you just can't seem to get up out of bed when the alarm starts blaring. It's probably not lack of sleep that's bothering you—it's the fact that your body isn't able to truly recover between workouts. Muscles and tendons repair more quickly during sleep, so if you're constantly in a rest deficit because you haven't taken a day or two off then you'll always feel tired and sluggish.

2. Injury-prone
If you're constantly battling injuries, that's a sign that you're overtraining. The fact is that most injuries stem from overuse and stress, and working too hard for too long will result in an eventual injury.

3. Difficulty losing weight or building muscle
Does it seem like you've suddenly reached a plateau when it comes to weight loss or muscle hypertrophy? That's because your body is in serious stress mode, and likely producing cortisol. Your adrenal system, which pumps out the stress hormone, will eventually become overloaded and unable to keep up. Excessive cortisol production eventually leads to increased belly fat and weight gain (along with a whole host of other issues like exhaustion and depression).

And because your muscles are unable to fully repair, they never grow stronger. That means that even though you're working out like crazy, your sweat sessions are less effective.  

4. Imbalanced hormonal function
The female athlete triad is common in competitive, active women. It occurs when a female suffers from low energy, decreased bone density, and finally loses her menstrual cycle. It's incredibly dangerous and can eventually lead to osteoporosis and fertility issues, but it's relatively common in women who work out a lot. Men who overexercise might also notice that their hormonal function seems off. They might be moody, tired, have a decreased sex drive, or suffer from low testosterone because of overexertion.

Even Olympians take time off and recover when they need to, so don’t overdo it! At Integrative Nutrition, we believe in balance. We recommend sticking to about 30 minutes of movement three to five days a week (even yoga!), and you’re golden. Remember, rest and recovery are just as important as hitting the gym.

How do you balance your workouts? Share in the comments below!

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