Can You Exercise Too Much?
A: Yes, but it’s uncommon in our sedentary society.
We’re always being urged to exercise regularly. We know exercise can help prevent or cure a host of health conditions, and that if we all exercised more, there would be much less heart disease, cancer, and diabetes in the world.
But if a little exercise is good, does that mean the more you do, the better? Or can you exercise too much?
The answer is probably yes to both questions, says Dr. David Jenkins, an exercise physiologist at the University of Queensland.
For most of us, more will be better. But that doesn’t mean you can’t overdo it
The truth is that most of us don’t get enough regular exercise, Jenkins says. We need about 30 minutes on most days of the week, preferably at a moderate intensity. (The talk test is the best way to know if you’re doing moderate intensity exercise. This means you can still talk while you exercise.)
Nonetheless, it is possible to overdo things. And those who prefer the “no pain, no gain” approach are the ones most at risk.
When you over-exercise, you tend to overload your muscles and joints, which can lead to injuries – such as hamstring strains, Achilles tendon tears, or shoulder joint problems.
And you’re more likely to end up with these types of injuries if you push yourself too hard after having had a break from regular exercise.
“Particularly at risk are individuals unaccustomed to recent regular exercise. They are at high risk of getting injured, and their de-conditioned bodies might not be able to meet what they may have been able to do in the past”, says Jenkins.
As well as injuring your muscles, joints, and bones, you can also put yourself at risk of a heart attack if you push yourself too hard while exercising. But this usually affects only people with undiagnosed, pre-existing heart conditions.
But over-exercising can also affect the amount of energy your body has available to do other functions, Jenkins says.
You need to burn more fuel than you consume if you want to lose weight. But if your energy deficit is too great, then your body may suffer.
For example, female athletes who over-exercise sometimes stop having periods. This can be associated with a decrease in estrogen levels, which can, in turn, affect bone health – a situation sometimes referred to as the ‘female triad’. The chronic energy deficiency that defines the so-called female triad is often associated with excessive exercise and disordered eating patterns.
Another scenario is when people who over-exercise get sick, says Jenkins. Such illness can be related to your immune system being suppressed because your body has to draw too heavily on the available energy stored in the body.
Signs to Look For
So, how do you know when you’ve overdone it? Jenkins says these are some possible signs of having over-exercised:
- sore muscles
- stiff muscles and joints
- low energy levels
- exercise-induced weight loss of more than 1kg per week.
If you have gone too far, and are feeling the consequences of over-exercising, Jenkins says you need to allow yourself some recovery time.
But don’t stop exercising altogether – if you lay about on the couch too long, you will lose that fitness you’ve been working so hard for. Just exercise at a lower intensity and for shorter periods of time, giving your body a chance to recover.
Dr. David Jenkins is a senior lecturer in exercise physiology at The University of Queensland.