Because exercise is so beneficial for the human body, the focus of health professionals is usually on how to get people to do enough of it in our daily lives. Less often discussed is the other side of the coin: when motivating to work out isn’t a problem, but knowing when to lighten up and rest is.
Maybe you love the endorphin rush of a good workout so much that you don’t want to go a day without it. Perhaps exercise helps you feel present in your body, and you worry that without it you won’t have as good of a mindset. Or, you might use exercise to keep yourself from having to be concerned about your food intake, as our metabolisms stay raised for hours after we finish our workouts. Whatever the reason, too much of a good thing is possible, so we’re here to help you recognize whether or not your exercise habits might be pushing your mind and body too hard. Let’s discuss how you can figure out if you’re overtraining, and what to do about it if you are.
Is It Possible to Over-Exercise?
Yes, it is definitely possible to over-exercise. When too much focus is put on any one part of our lives, there can be a negative impact on everything else. How much equals too much is a more individualized question, though. We know that 45-60 minutes a day results in a significant reduction of risk of early death, and that for general health, 15-30 minutes a day will do. That doesn’t automatically mean that if you exercise more than that, you’re over-exercising, but it also doesn’t mean that if you exercise significantly more, you’re automatically going to reap a whole lot more rewards. In fact, you may instead be causing yourself harm.
Additionally, too much exercise can move into addiction territory. It might seem odd that exercise is something you can be addicted to, but it actually isn’t: exercise has a high and a routine, or ritual, just like other behaviors that one can become addicted to. If you think you may have developed some addictive behaviors around exercise, this quiz is designed to help you parse out whether you’re just loving your workouts, or you’re headed towards having a bigger problem.
Red Flags That You're Pushing Your Body Too Hard
There are many signs that may indicate you’re over-exercising. While one of the below alone is possibly not cause for concern, if you can relate to numerous symptoms, you may be exercising too much.
- Prolonged Muscle Soreness: Though sore muscles from a workout are normal, that feeling should be occasional, not frequent, and it shouldn’t last for more than two, or at most three, days after a workout.
- Insomnia: Whether you’re not sleeping well or you’re having a hard time falling asleep at all, sleeplessness can be a sign of too much exercise. When you’re exercising an amount that works for your body, it’s sleep promoting.
- Fatigue: If you find yourself constantly tired, and especially if you’re tired through your workouts, your body isn’t being given the recovery tools it needs for exercise’s energy-promoting effect.
- Decreased Performance: A healthy path is one where with each workout, you feel like your strength and stamina are increasing. Feeling that you’re going backwards, whether that means plateauing or actually finding your muscles and stamina to be lower, is a surefire sign of overdoing it.
- Altered Appetite: A good workout should incite excitement for your next meal. However, if you’re overtraining you may not feel hungry. Conversely, overtraining can make you hungry nonstop, even if you’re giving your body all the nutrition it needs.
- Fat Gain: exercising too much disrupts your body’s ability to regulate stress hormone cortisol. That can result in your body holding on to excess fat.
- Immune Weakness: Moderate exercise is great for your immune system. Conversely, over-exercising can make it hard for your immune system to function well, and you may experience more colds and flu.
- Inflammation: Different than sore muscles, systemic inflammation can show up as anything from joint pain to worsened digestion. As chronic inflammation is a trigger for larger illnesses, this is important to not let get out of control.
- Depression: Exercise is a mood booster, but too much of it can leave you constantly feeling sad or lethargic. When your hormones can’t regulate properly because of overtraining, your happiness chemicals can’t do their jobs, either.
- Injury: Both inflammation and prolonged recovery speed make you more likely to hurt yourself. If you’re getting injured from your workouts despite keeping good form and not training beyond your known capabilities, this could be why.
How to Listen to Your Body
The red flag list above is pretty straightforward, but you might still be confused about what to do if you’re experiencing any of those symptoms. In that case, the most important thing you can do is listen to your body. How to hear what your body might be telling you? Here are some questions to ask yourself.
- Notice what activities you’re gravitating to in your free time. Are you exhausted and just want to lay on the couch and watch tv? That’s a sign of fatigue.
- Think about whether your eating habits have changed lately. Are you snacking constantly? Or having a hard time even eating a meal?
- Are you feeling strong, or not? Your workouts should make you feel like you’re gradually increasing in strength. If you’re feeling weak, you may be overdoing it.
- Day to day, you shouldn’t notice pain in your body if you’re young, healthy, and active. Are you noticing aches and pains more often?
- How’s your mental health? If you’re feeling depressed, irritable, or sad without cause, your workouts may be impacting your moods.
Taking a rest day doesn't mean you have to abstain from all forms of movement. Taking a walk, doing some light resistance work, and full-body stretch sessions are all considered healthy forms of movement you can do on an active rest day.
When to See a Physician
If the answers to your questions lead you to believe you may be over-exercising, there’s no cause for despair. You might just be able to take a pause, and resume working out in a more mild manner once you’re feeling rested. However, sometimes it’s important to get help from professionals. Overtraining Syndrome isn’t a recognized mental health issue by the American Psychiatric Association, but it is a commonly known problem, and help for it is available.
There are two reasons that over-exercising may lead to the need to seek professional help. The first reason is if you have a physical injury from your training and it will benefit from, or only heal with the intervention of, a medical professional. The second is if you’re developing overtraining syndrome. In that case, it can be beneficial to talk to a mental health professional who can help you get back on track so that exercise helps, rather than harms, your emotional well being.
Physically, you’ll want to see a medical professional if you experience an injury that isn't improving. While minor injuries can take time to recover from and don’t usually require intervention, progress in healing should be evident pretty quickly. If it’s been weeks since you hurt yourself and you aren’t noticing the injured part feeling better despite good home care, you’ll want to get it checked out. Alternately, if you undergo a large injury, you shouldn’t wait to seek care. If anything may be broken, dislocated, or otherwise is causing you extreme pain, you should head directly to find out what happened and how to best deal with it.
On the mental health side, there’s nothing to be ashamed of if exercise has become so prevalent in your routine that it has worsened your emotional wellness. Suffering from a bad mood, or snacking a lot for a day or two, aren’t anything to worry about. But if you’re developing depression, feeling uncomfortable about potentially training less, or think you may have developed an addiction to exercise, you’ll be best served by talking to a professional about that. They can guide you through conquering the rest you need and reintroducing yourself to exercise in a manner that will help keep you healthy.
While exercise in general is healthy for our minds and bodies, overtraining is definitely possible. Signs of over-exercising include feeling of fatigue, changes in appetite, reduction in performance, proclivity for injury, and an inability to make continued progress. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s important to discern their cause(s). If too much exercise is identified as the culprit, you may wish to get professional help. Over-exercising isn’t something to take lightly: the results of it, such as a lowered immune system and increased stress hormones, can lead to larger health problems. To be our healthiest selves, moderation is key, and rest plays as important a role in our wellness as activity does.