I was a sophomore in college, sitting in class as my professor wrapped up our lesson on overtraining, saying…
“Basically, no exercise is bad… but too much exercise is worse.”
I had never heard anything like this. Could too much exercise really be worse than none? If so, was I exercising too much?
All that (I thought) I knew about exercise was the more, the better.
I resonated with many of the symptoms of overtraining that he described. But, I rationalized, it’s not like I’m a professional athlete working out daily for hours on end. If people like Michael Phelps are out there training 8 hours a day, I certainly couldn’t be overtraining with a mere 1-2.
What I failed to recognize (or maybe just to admit to myself) is that I am not, in fact, a professional athlete. I do not eat, sleep or recover like a professional athlete (and I’m certainly not genetically gifted like one – just ask my dad)
Our modern exercise culture, however, promotes training like one.
We live in a society that glorifies extremes, evidenced by t-shirts proclaiming, “Sore Today, Strong Tomorrow” and Fitspo images of chiseled abs plastered behind the words, “Sweat is Fat Crying.”
Popular media has taken a healthy behavior and decided that if some is good, more is better.
Cue the rise of high intensity everything – Cross Fit, Tabata training and messaging that encourages an aggressive, all or nothing mentality towards exercise.
For years, I was a believer. This mindset pervaded my behavior as an exerciser and an instructor. Everything was all out (high intensity, minimal rest, minimal recovery) all the time.
While I’m a strong proponent of exercise providing immense physical and psychological benefits, when we dichotomize any behavior into all or nothing, good or bad categories, the virtue can easily become the vice.
Without understanding the science behind it, the “no pain, no gain” mentality can seem like a fantastic idea. Initially, you will lose weight and see performance improvements. When continued chronically, gains diminish and physical and psychological consequences emerge.
Short-Term Consequences of Overtraining:
- Chronic Muscle pain
- Reductions in performance
- Increased risk of stress fractures, joint damage and other injuries
- Higher stress levels and/or depression
- Social isolation
- Feelings of shame, guilt or worthlessness
- Lowered self-esteem
If you’re really dead-set in the all or nothing, all the time, if it doesn’t hurt it doesn’t work exercise mentality you’re probably thinking to yourself,
“Okay, those things suck, but I have to stick to this regimen if I want to be super strong and super lean, right?”
Long-Term Consequences of Overtraining:
- Chronic Fatigue
- Increased risk of death or cardiovascular complication
- And here’s the big one - Weight gain
While in most cases exercise is beneficial, it has a point of diminishing returns. This means that at some point, exercise stops working for you and actually works against you.
How Over Exercising Wreaks Havoc on your Body:
Exercise is stress on the body.
When your body is faced with a stressor, it elicits a stress response by increasing cortisol and other hormones that prepare your body for action. When chronic, this can negatively affect your hypothalamic-adrenal pituitary (HPA) axis, which controls your hormone production.
And hormones, my friends, control everything.
This can lead to reductions in growth hormone and testosterone (which promote muscularity and the utilization of fat mass for fuel) and a dramatic drop in your body’s metabolic function.
When your body is constantly faced with high energy demands that exceed its capacity to recover, it believes that it needs to conserve energy and slow down other functions in order to meet those demands.
While your compulsive exercise routine may be well intended, in excess, it can ultimately do you more harm than good.
So how do you ensure your working out safely AND effectively?
Tips to Minimize the Likelihood of Overtraining and Reap the Most Benefits from your Workouts:
- Sleep more (I’m talking 7-9 hours a night) – Lack of sleep is highly associated with poor recovery, increased caloric consumption, weight gain and lethargy.
- Eat enough, and right – The saying “there’s no such thing as overtraining, just under eating and under sleeping” exists for a reason (and explains the athlete phenomenon discussed above). Getting enough nutrition to provide substrates to aid recovery and diminish stress response is key to guaranteeing you actually make gains from the exercise you are doing. Refueling with carbohydrates and protein is especially important post workout to ensure an adequate energy supply for recovery and glycogen repletion for your next workout session.
- Monitor the frequency of high intensity exercise – I am not saying you shouldn’t train to kick ass and take names, sometimes. When performed safely and correctly, high intensity exercise does have huge benefits. But, high intensity, high frequency and long duration exercise does not. If you look at scientifically proven styles of high intensity training, they are 1) short in duration, 2) do not make up the entirety of someone’s workout regimen, 3) are followed by adequate rest and recovery.
- Listen to your body –Your body has an amazingly high tech response to things that are hurting it – pain. Whether it is physical (chronic soreness), emotional (irritability) or spiritual (diminished self-esteem) pain, your body is trying to tell you that you’re doing something wrong. If you refuse to listen to these signals, your body will respond by slowing down metabolic function and halting (or reversing) your fitness gains.
Beyond these consequences of overtraining lies a moral issue that is equally damaging.
When you exercise out of compulsion, obsession or a need to fit someone else’s standards, exercise becomes another thing to check off your “good enough” list for the day.
When I finally decided I had to stop over exercising, after seeing that it was not only hurting my physical and emotional health, but also preventing me from making any fitness improvements, I felt so uncomfortable.
I had been telling myself that I was active out of a desire for optimal health when in fact; I was operating under the belief that I am not good enough as I am.
If you examine the motivations that underlie any exercise compulsion, you’ll likely find the same thing.
You might not be CEO of your company, make 6 figures or have solved the world’s hunger problem – but at least you work hard in the gym, damn it.
In a society that is hyper-focused on appearance and exercise extremes, it’s easy to understand why individuals might build their sense of worth off of their exercise habits.
That is why the no pain, no gain mentality needs to end.
I’ll admit, this was a hard lesson for me. It took many years and signals from my body before I finally cut down. Remarkably, (well, not really) I have lost weight and gotten stronger and happier in doing so.
Most importantly, I have decided that I am enough whether I teach two spin classes today, go for a walk around the lake or do nothing at all.
And you are too.
At its core, exercise should not leave you feeling beat down – it should lift you up.
Instead of serving as a comparison point, it should serve as an opportunity for growth and gratitude.
And most importantly, instead of validating your worth as a human being, exercise should be one behavior, among many, that honors your value as a human being.