Health

Is it possible to exercise too much?

A: You’ve probably been told countless
times that exercise is good for your health and fitness, and it’s tempting to
assume that more is automatically better. But as with so many other good things
in life, there comes a point of diminishing returns, and it’s possible to
overdo it.

Exactly what constitutes too much
physical activity, however, will depend on your individual situation.

The first thing to ask yourself if
you’re wondering whether you’ve exercised too much is: “Why are you
exercising?” said Dr Benjamin Levine, a professor of internal medicine at the
University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and director of the Institute
for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at Texas Health Dallas.

If your goal is to improve your health
and reduce your risk of a range of conditions from diabetes to heart disease to
cancer, then 2 1/2 to three hours of moderate to vigorous exercise per week
gets you the vast majority of benefits, Levine said. “Once you get past five
hours per week or so, you’re not exercising for health, you’re exercising for
performance.”

And when you’re exercising for
performance — whether it’s to get stronger in the gym, run a marathon or
improve your tennis game — it’s possible to stress your body beyond what it can
bounce back from, said Kristen Dieffenbach, an exercise scientist and director
of the Center for Applied Coaching and Sport Sciences at West Virginia
University. For athletes, the purpose of training is to induce a so-called
training response, she said. You work out, and your body responds by getting
fitter, stronger and faster. These improvements don’t happen during the workout
itself but occur during the recovery period. That’s when your body repairs the
damage brought on by hard exercise, like microtears in your muscle fibres, and
makes adaptations, like increasing the energy-producing mitochondria in your
cells.

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As long as your body is able to keep up
with this repair work, your workouts will continue to aid your performance,
Dieffenbach said. But when the stress from your workouts builds up beyond your
capacity to recover, you have entered the zone of too much, known in the
sporting community as overtraining.

What makes things tricky is that the
line between training hard and overtraining is fuzzy. There’s no formula or
number that can tell you what’s too much, Dieffenbach said. Instead, what
matters is how your body responds to the exercise you’re doing. Dieffenbach
suggested thinking of exercise and the physical and emotional resources it
requires as calling upon money in a bank. You have only so much in your budget,
and if you try to overspend, you’re going to end up worn down or injured, and
probably cranky.

Over time, your exercise budget can
change. As you age, your body requires more time for recovery, so you may need
to factor in more rest between hard workouts. It’s also constrained by the
other things going on in your life. Spending long hours at work or traveling,
or dealing with stressful situations at home, can gobble up some of your
energetic budget and diminish your capacity for recovering from exercise,
Dieffenbach said. One 2016 study of 101 college football players, for instance,
found that their risk of injury nearly doubled during times of academic stress
(like during midterms and finals weeks).

The most reliable signs that you’re
exercising too much come from your subjective feelings of well-being,
Dieffenbach said. If you’re suddenly tired all the time, or workouts that used
to seem easy feel hard, or your performance has dropped unexpectedly (like your
running times get slower without explanation, or your daily walk is taking
longer than usual), it might be time to ramp down and rest, Dieffenbach said.
Other classic signs of overtraining include trouble sleeping, feeling run-down
and not being able to shake minor colds and other respiratory infections.
“Sometimes you have to back off to move forward,” Dieffenbach said.

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If you find that you’re having to force
yourself to do workouts you used to enjoy, or are feeling guilty about not
exercising enough, those are other signs that you’ve overdone it. This is
especially true if the feelings linger for more than a few days, Dieffenbach
said. (Of course, these may also be signs of other health issues, like
depression, so it’s important to keep that in mind, too.)

On the other hand, if you’re finding that
your love of exercise is becoming more of an unhealthy obsession, that’s
something to pay attention to as well, said Szabó Attila, a health psychologist
who studies exercise addiction at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest,
Hungary. An exercise addiction can occur when someone feels compelled to do
physical activity, even if they are in pain or injured. There isn’t one
specific number of hours of exercise per week that would correlate with an
exercise addiction, one of Attila’s studies from 2019 found, but “it becomes
problematic when it harms other aspects of life,” he said. If you’ve put
exercise before your relationships, work and everything else, Attila said,
that’s a sign that it’s become too much.

One of Attila’s colleagues, Mark
Griffiths, a psychologist at Nottingham Trent University in Britain, has
developed six criteria for health providers to use when screening patients for
exercise addiction:

1. Exercise is the most important thing
in my life.

2. Conflicts have arisen between me and
my family and/or my partner about the amount of exercise I do.

3. I use exercise as a way of changing
my mood (e.g. to get a buzz, to escape, etc).

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4. Over time I have increased the amount
of exercise I do in a day.

5. If I have to miss an exercise session
I feel moody and irritable.

6. If I cut down the amount of exercise
I do, and then start again, I always end up exercising as often as I did
before.

To classify as an addiction, a person
would need to meet all six criteria, and that’s rare, Griffiths said. But a lot
of people exhibit problematic exercise that doesn’t quite reach the level of an
addiction, he added. For instance, those who goes to work and function
normally, but then come home and neglect their family so that they can go to
the gym and workout — that’s still a problem.

Which brings us to the ultimate answer
to our question: Yes, it’s possible to exercise too much. And you’ll know
you’re doing it when it’s breaking down your body, making you sick or injured,
or adversely affecting the rest of your life. When it stops making you feel
good and enriching your life, it’s time to cut back.

 

 

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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