Are you exercising too much? If we look at the general population, probably not. Current exercise recommendations from the American Heart Association suggest:
- 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise or…
- 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise (or a combination of moderate and vigorous activity)
Simply suggested: “30 minutes a day, 5 times a week…”
According to the Association, people with high blood pressure or high cholesterol should be doing 40 minutes of aerobic exercise of moderate to vigorous intensity 3 to 4 times a week to decrease the risk for heart attack and stroke.
How well are Americans meeting these minimal exercise requirements?
Not so great. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports:
- Less than 5% of adults participate in 30 minutes of physical activity each day; only one in three adults receives the recommended amount of physical activity each week.
- Only 35–44% of adults 75 years or older are physically active, and 28-34% of adults aged 65-74 are physically active.
- More than 80% of adults do not meet the guidelines for both aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities.
But, if you’re dedicated to exercise, you may be overexercising, and not even know it, especially if you are trying to lose weight or are an amateur or competitive athlete. So, are you exercising too much? Read on to find out!
How Much Exercise Is Too Much?
The exercise recommendations cited by the American Heart Association are considered the minimal amounts of exercise needed to get maximal health benefits. However, what about the large number of people who exceed those recommendations? Literally millions train for and participate in endurance events such as marathons, triathlons, and long-distance bicycle rides. It is not uncommon for bodybuilders to spend large chunks of the day in the gym. Is it possible to overtrain?
When it comes to exercising, some fitness enthusiasts (amateurs and pros alike) tend to think that if some is good for us, then more will be better. While that is true to some extent, even world-class athletes have a limit to how much productive training they can do. That is certainly even more true for recreational athletes or individuals exercising for general fitness or to lose some excess pounds.
Enter: the recovery period. The recovery aspect of training helps athletes avoid overtraining and risk of energy. Adhering to a hard/easy workout schedule, working out hard one day and easy the next, gives the body a chance to recover before being really challenged again.
When performance deteriorates during heavy training, the reason is often “overtraining,” and throttling back may lead to greater gains. The question is how do you know whether you are not getting the gains from training that you expect because you are overtraining, or because you are not training hard enough?
This distinction may be hard to recognize, as it is easy to get into the mindset that if you aren’t improving as much as or in the way that you expect to, then you need to increase the amount and intensity of training. To make sure your mind isn’t “running” things, take it easy for a few days and see if your performance improves when you return to your regular training. If you come back stronger and faster than ever, then chances are you were overtrained. If this is the case, changing your workout schedule to incorporate more rest days will likely be productive.
While overtraining is always a potential issue with competitive athletes, it rarely has serious negative impact on their lives. Professional athletes generally are very attuned to their bodies and how they perform. Their endpoint is performance, not the training, per se. Athletes more often than not dread rather than look forward to a hard workout.
Signs You May Be Exercising Too Much
There's a fine line between too much exercise and just the right amount, but the line becomes more noticeable when you listen to the cues your body gives you. You may be exercising too much if you feel:
- Exhausted instead of energized after your workouts
- Restless and unable to sleep
- Depressed or anxious
- Rundown or more susceptible to colds
- Irritable and quick to temper
Physical signs you're exercising too much include:
- No changes to body composition despite your workout efforts
- A rapid heart rate even when you aren't exercising (due to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances)
- Consistent muscle soreness
- Stiffness, heaviness, and fatigue in the legs
The Mental and Physical Ramifications of Too Much Exercise
We want you to get out there and get moving, to push your body to new heights and to stretch the limits of endurance and strength. But we don't want you adversely impacting your health and longevity. Going overboard with exercise has been shown to carry serious health risks.
One study showed that light to moderate runners had a decreased risk of death compared to individuals who didn't exercise. That's a win for exercise. But it also showed that people who ran at the highest intensity more than 3 times a week had the same mortality risk as people who weren't physically active. Which proves that more too often isn't a good thing.
And numerous studies have shown that extreme endurance athletes, such as ultra-marathoners, are more likely to suffer heart rhythm abnormalities, heart disease and damage, and enlarged blood vessels.
We know from research that weekly physical activity can decrease the risk of heart attack or stroke in women, but women who exercise vigorously every day of the week are actually at great risk of suffering from a cardiovascular event.
Overtraining and calorie restriction put women at an increased risk for a trio of health conditions known as the female athlete triad: irregular or absent menstruation, eating disorders, bone mineral loss or osteoporosis. And men who exercise too much may experience dips in their libido due to an imbalance in testosterone and physical exhaustion.
Exercising too much also raises your risk for overuse injuries like stress factors and tendinitis and compromises your immune system function. For 72 hours after a workout your immune system is vulnerable to bacteria, viruses, and other infectious invaders.
And then there are the approximately 1 million Americans battling exercise addiction, which can negatively affect both physical and mental well-being.
Exercise addiction has all the characteristics of other addictive behaviors. These include:
- Extreme anxiety if you don’t get your exercise in
- Craving the adrenaline of a workout
If you are addicted to exercise you may lose control and not be able to stop or slow down even if you want to, continually feeling that you want to do even more. All of these characteristics will ultimately have negative consequences on your work performance, personal relationships, and health. Health risks include dehydration, anemia, a weakened immune system, and an overuse of energy. Exercise addiction is often linked to an eating disorder and can have life-threatening consequences if not treated.
Dealing with exercise addiction is similar to dealing with any kind of addictive behavior. The first step is to recognize you have a problem, and then get help to address the problem.
How to Scale Back the Exercise and Increase the Performance and Strength Gains
Your body needs time to rest and recuperate, especially if you're doing high-intensity interval exercises. Limit your high-intensity session to 3 times a week and you'll see that rest days in between will pay off in performance benefits. It takes your fast-twitch muscle fibers a full 48 hours to recover!
Follow a well-rounded fitness program that incorporates high intensity, strength and resistance training, full-body functional workouts, and low-level aerobics. A rest day doesn't necessarily mean no working out. It could mean shifting the focus to an endurance hike after the previous day's weightlifting workout. Or taking a yoga class before tomorrow's HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workout.
If you're at all concerned that your activity levels are bordering on extreme, consider hiring a personal trainer to develop a customized exercise program according to your fitness and health goals. Make sure you are carving out enough time for regular exercise and rest, and vary the type of workout routines you engage in as well as the intensity of exercises.
How to Exercise for Weight Loss without Going Overboard
If you want to use cardio for weight loss, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends exercising for 60 to 90 minutes per day, 5 days a week with a mix of moderately intense and vigorously intense exercise. Or you could work out for 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the afternoon/evening.
While it is possible to lose weight following the above exercise recommendations, there are a few things to keep in mind. Regardless of your diet or activity level, weight loss comes down to eating fewer calories than you expend. Exercise helps you lose weight by increasing the number of calories you burn, but your total caloric intake should be reduced as well, which is the most challenging part of a diet, especially in conjunction with exercise. Exercise, particularly cardio exercise, increases your hunger and your need for more food for fuel. Therein lies the catch.
Exercise can also leave you feeling like the hay is in the barn for the day, and so you might be less active for the next 24 hours.
A great cardio workout in the morning is going to be the most effective for weight loss if you maintain your normal activity levels for the rest of the day. If you are extremely limited in how much exercise you can do, that limited amount of exercise will give you cardiovascular and metabolic benefits, but you may not be burning enough additional calories to gain significant benefit in terms of energy balance. The bottom line is that exercise should always be incorporated into a weight-loss program, but you are likely going to have to cut down your normal caloric intake as well to achieve the weight loss success you desire.
Cardio is just one element of exercise for weight loss. Resistance training is a necessity if you wish to lose weight and keep it off. In the largest study to date, Duke University researchers examined the effects of resistance exercise on weight loss. After 8 months of tracking 119 overweight volunteers while they performed resistance training, aerobic exercise, or a combination of the two, they found that the cardio-plus-resistance group lost the most fat while adding some lean mass.
“Minute per minute, cardio burns more calories, so it works best for reducing fat mass and body mass. Resistance training is important for maintaining lean body mass, strength, and function—being functionally fit is important for daily living no matter what your size,” co-author of the study, Cris Slentz, PhD, said.
Ready to strength train and do cardio? Great! But should you focus on cardio or strength first?
Experts have yet to agree, but studies suggest you’re better off strength training before cardio training because you burn more calories. An American Council on Exercise study found that your heart rate is higher during your cardio exercises, by about 12 beats per minute, when you’ve lifted weights beforehand.
Whether you're exercising for weight loss or to maintain or increase muscle mass, it's always a good idea to meet your protein requirements with an amino acid powder supplement that delivers free aminos for fast absorption to the muscles craving extra fuel during your workouts.