You know regular exercise is good for you, and you probably do your best to hit a certain weekly target of physical activity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), after all, recommends 2.5 hours of moderate aerobic exercise and two strength-training sessions per week.
But what do you do once hitting that target is an easy and regular thing? You're feeling good, right? So, why not ramp it up? After all, if a little exercise is good for you, more must be better, right? But be warned that there actually is such a thing as too much exercise.
In their newfound zeal for getting in shape, some people -- especially those still finding their way around the gym -- end up going a little too far and overwork their bodies. How can you avoid this all-too-common mistake? What are some telltale signs that you're overdoing it?
Understanding Exercise's Impact on Your Body
To understand how a workout can lead to an overuse injury, you first need to understand what happens to your muscles when you exercise. Exercise puts stress on your body and some types of exercise even cause microscopic tears to your muscle fibers. In response, your body sets out to repair and rebuild the damaged tissue -- making it stronger and better prepared for the next challenge.
Just the right amount of stress can be exactly the motivation your body needs to make changes. Too much stress, can cause irreparable damage, not only to muscles, but also to vital organs. According to Time, research published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology showed that people who ran more than four hours a week for more than three days a week at a fast pace had the same rate of death as those with a sedentary life. The extreme rate undid all the benefits of running.
How Much Is Too Much?
Clearly, then, there is a definite risk derived from putting your body through too much exercise. But where is the line? How much is appropriate, and how much is too much?
That's a fairly difficult question to answer. Even the CDC guidelines are open to interpretation, depending on a persons' health and mobility. But the same goes for healthy individuals; everyone responds differently to exercise.
The first step, then, is to discuss your intended workout plan with your doctor. Because they are aware of any conditions you have that may impact your ability to exercise, they can help set some personal guidelines for you.
Beyond that, you'll need to listen to your body. The list of over-training symptoms covers a variety of physical and psychological signs, including
- An altered resting heart rate and blood pressure
- Chronic fatigue
- Decreased efficiency of movement and physical performance
- Frequent nausea/gastrointestinal issues
- A weakened immune response
- Difficulty focusing
- Increased breathing rate
- An insatiable thirst
- Joint aches and pains
- A lack of appetite
- Lower percentage of body fat
- Menstrual disruptions in women
- Muscle soreness and tenderness
- Prolonged recovery from exercise
To avoid health problems, build at least two days of rest into your workout each week. While you should still be active on those days, don't work out. Alternating the types of exercise you do is another good preventive measure. For example, runners might do a long run, a speed day, and a cross-training day, while for strength training, focus on large muscle groups, and if you work the same groups more than once a week, do a variety of exercises.
As always, be sure that you get enough sleep; this is when that rebuilding work really takes place. It's also extremely important that your diet provides you with all the calories and nutrients your body needs to fully recover from your workouts -- and drink plenty of water.
If you experience some of the above symptoms, you'll potentially need to make some changes to your routine. This could mean reducing the frequency and/or intensity of your workouts, or even simply taking a week off completely. It depends on the severity of the situation, but it always pays to be cautious -- pushing yourself too hard will have you sidelined for much longer than you ever planned.