Because, yes, over-exercising is a thing

By Gabrielle Kassel
February 18, 2020
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You can apply a Goldilocks-esque rule to many things (you know, "not too big, not too small, but just right"): oatmeal, sex, poops-per-week, how often you exfoliate. And this approach goes for exercise, too.

You probably knew it's possible to get too little exercise. But did you know it's possible to get too much? Yep. "Daily movement and exercise are a good thing, but it's possible to overdo it and actually get in the way of your fitness goals, doing more harm than good to your body," says Alena Luciani, M.S., C.S.C.S., a strength and conditioning specialist and founder of Training2xl.

But how much exercise is too much, how little is too little, and how do you know when you've found your sweet spot? All that, below.

Are You Getting "Too Little" Exercise?

You can look to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommendations to gauge how much exercise you need for general health (aka the minimum amount of exercise you should be getting per week). For adults ages 18 to 64, the HHS recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week or at least 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per week. (As a refresher: You can use the talk test to gauge your intensity. During moderate aerobic activity, you can still talk but will be breathing hard. During vigorous aerobic activity, you won't be able to talk much at all.) They also encourage doing workouts that improve your balance and build muscular strength two or more times per week.

Tally up your weekly activity and realize you're getting less than the recommended amount? You're in good company: Eighty percent of adults are failing to meet the HSS's weekly minimum aerobic and strength work benchmarks. But that doesn't give you a free pass to stay sedentary! Try adding 10 minutes of movement to your schedule every day (like this bodyweight workout or this interval workout.)

Figuring Out Your "Just Right" Amount of Exercise

If you're already a regular gym-goer, the HSS recommendation might sound low to you. Again, those are the minimum recommended amounts of activity. "The HSS acknowledges that even more exercise comes with even more health benefits," says exercise physiologist Pete McCall, M.S., C.S.C.S., C.P.T., host of the All About Fitness Podcast. And, if you have a specific goal—for instance, lose weight, get stronger, become better at a particular sport—you'll likely need to exercise more than that, he says. (See: How Much Exercise You Need Totally Depends On Your Goals)

For example, the American College of Sports Medicine 2019's guidelines state that, while 150 to 250 minutes of exercise per week can yield modest weight-loss results, you'll need to exercise more than 250 minutes per week and moderately restrict your diet (ex: in the study, they looked at people who consumed 1,200-2,000 calories) to see more dramatic results. In practice, that looks like working out for one hour, five days a week.

Similarly, while doing two days a week of general strength work will support muscle growth, to reach maximum muscle-building potential, you need to focus on training each muscle group twice a week, according to a review in the journal Sports Medicine. That likely means strength training four to five times a week and splitting it up by muscle group (like a bodybuilding training plan) or making sure you're hitting every single muscle group during your total-body strength sessions.

Beyond the HSS recommendations, figuring out the "just right" amount of exercise for you means taking into account your fitness goals, training age, nutritional habits, stress levels, sleep schedule, and the intensity of the training that you're doing, according to Luciani. "A good training schedule takes [all those things] into account," she says. (Ex: Here's how to build the perfect workout plan to build muscle or for weight loss.)

Yes, It's Possible to Exercise "Too Much"

When it comes to exercise, you might think more is always better, but Luciani and McCall both agree that's just plain untrue. "If you exercise too much for weeks or months at a time, you put your body at risk of overtraining syndrome," says Luciani. (Related: I Started Exercising Less and Now I'm Fitter Than Ever)

Overtraining syn-huh?? When you exercise, you're actually breaking down your muscle fibers. Usually, this is a good thing because when the body repairs and rebuilds them, you're stronger than you were before (#gains). But in order for the repair process to happen you need adequate sleep, nutrition, rest, and recovery, says Luciani. Fail to give your body those things, and you interfere with your body's ability to get stronger. "If you continuously get in the way of your body rebuilding itself from the damage of the previous workout(s), you take your body to a place of chronic stress, which is called overtraining syndrome," she explains.

One way to think about it: Too much exercise + not enough fuel + insufficient rest --> too much stress = overtraining syndrome.

Is overtraining syndrome something the general population needs to worry about? Generally speaking, no. "But it's something all exercisers should be aware of, especially since the more-is-better trend in fitness continues," says McCall. If you're a CrossFit junkie, marathon or endurance runners, fitness boutique lover, have recently committed to a new exercise routine, or who thinks rest days are boring, you're especially susceptible, he says.

Common Signs and Symptoms You're Exercising Too Much

"There's really no way to offer a qualitative answer to the question 'how much exercise is too much,'" says Luciani. There are too many factors in the equation (again: nutrition, stress, intensity, age, etc.), she says. But while there's no one-size-fits-all rule for when overtraining syndrome strikes, there are common symptoms associated with the condition that you can keep an eye out for.

You've hit a plateau: The fact is, hitting the gym too much can stall progress toward your fitness goals. "Whether you're aiming to lose weight, get stronger, more powerful, or faster, overtraining syndrome is going to get in the way," says Luciani. That's because your body isn't adequately recovering between sessions. (Related: Why You're Seeing a Plateau At the Gym).

You're getting less fit: At a certain point, overtraining won't just keep you at a standstill, it'll actually move you further and further away from your goals. "If your muscles are constantly breaking down and never getting the opportunity to repair, you're going to get weaker," says Luciani. Remember: Your muscles get bigger and stronger when you leave the gym, not when you're there. (Related: How to Work Out Less and See Better Results)

You're gaining weight: When you have overtraining syndrome, your body is in a state of chronic stress. This effs with your stress hormone (cortisol), which interferes with your metabolism and can lead to weight gain. (See: Why Does My Workout Cause Weight Gain?)

Your muscles are super sore: No doubt, muscle soreness a day or two after a hard workout is normal. But three, four, five, or six days after? Nope. "Prolonged muscle soreness is a sign your body isn't properly recovering or repairing the damage," explains Luciani. So next time you're hobbling up the stairs, think about the timing of your last leg day.

You're moody AF: "Overtraining syndrome can seriously affect your mental health. It can sap your motivation, make you short-tempered, hostile, cranky, sad, anxious, depressed, and a whole host of other not-so-fun mood changes," says Luciani. Of course, there are many causes of personality, emotional, and mental changes, so if you're feeling off, talk to a mental healthcare provider before jumping to conclusions.

Your sleep quality sucks: You'd think that the more you exercise, the easier it would be to fall asleep. Usually, that's true! But exercise too much and your sleep quality goes down the drain. "That's because your parasympathetic nervous system stops operating properly and your cortisol levels, which are typically lowest right before you go to sleep, are still sky-high," says McCall. (Try one of these Science-Backed Strategies on How to Sleep Better.)

You've got a nagging injury: Frequently getting injured (think: pulling a muscle, aggravating an old injury, or tweaking a muscle)? "When you have overtraining syndrome, you're exercising with broken down, weakened muscles, which makes you more susceptible to injury," says McCall. Further, because you're exercising so often, if you're exercising with imperfect form, you increase your risk for over-use and compensatory injuries, he says.

Your heart rate is outta whack: If you'd be more likely to use the verbs "hammering" or "pounding" to refer to your resting heart rate than, say, "beating," chances are you've been overtraining. That's because, if your body is working overtime to meet the needs of your training, your resting heart rate can change, explains McCall. Usually, the difference is substantial enough that you don't need a heart rate monitor to notice, but the benefit of high-tech heart-rate tracking gadgets (like the Whoop or Apple Watch) is that they also measure your heart rate variability (how much time passes between each heartbeat), which can dip as a result of overtraining. For example, if you're in a pretty restful state (watching Netflix, laying in bed, etc.) and you feel your heart racing, that might be an indicator that you're over-exercising.

You think you might be addicted to exercise: This isn't *always* the case, but over-exercising and exercise addiction often go hand in hand. While not officially recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, if you worry your workout habits or approach to working out—whether accompanied by symptoms of overtraining syndrome or not—have veered towards the obsessive, it's important to seek help from a mental health professional. (See More: Everything You Need to Know About Exercise Addiction).

Healing from Overtraining Syndrome

Some of the symptoms sound familiar. Now what? It starts by chatting up a healthcare provider. That's because many of the aforementioned symptoms are also symptoms of other serious health conditions like heart disease, hypertension, depression, PCOS, and more. Once these conditions have been ruled out, and it's been confirmed that you really do have overtraining syndrome, your next step is to scale your workouts back (like, way back!), says Luciani. If your usual M.O. is to work out until you're winded—and do that every single day—it might be a hard transition. (This might help: How I Learned to Love Rest Days)

Usually, experts will suggest going at least one week without any exercise to help your body reset. After that, Luciani recommends "working with a trainer who can intentionally write a program for you based on your fitness goals and current lifestyle." And, of course, it's important to actually follow the program when a rest day is scheduled!

And, because inadequate nutritional intake often contributes to overtraining, "athletes should also work with a nutritionist to figure out exactly much (and what) they should be eating to support their training goals," says Luciani. (Related: Why Undereating Works Against You).

Luciani also recommends folks keep a fitness feelings journal. "If you've gotten to the point of overtraining, you have to get better at listening to your body," she says. This isn't a place where you'll write what your workouts are—it's a place to think through how your body is feeling, what's sore, and how your training program is making you feel.

The Bottom Line

Getting the recommended amount of exercise is important. Getting more than that is okay...as long as you have a specific goal in mind and are continuing to give your body enough time to rest and recover between workouts. But if you start to experience any of the symptoms associated with overtraining syndrome, it's time to ring your doc, scale back, and partner with a fitness professional who will have you saying, just as our favorite blonde-haired intruder did, "Ahh this [exercise routine] is just right."

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