When It Comes to Exercise, Is Less More?

pain relief coach

8 Risks of Overtraining

While studies have shown that regular exercise has many proven benefits — manage weight and improving heart health, increase in energy, lower stress levels, –this doesn’t mean that over-training doesn’t cause the opposite types of effects. Due to the chronic stress it can place on the body, despite what some people assume, the risks of over-training may be just as great as doing no exercise at all.

When you do not give your hormones and body the time to adjust to exercise, you may cause injuries, mood problems, negative changes in your metabolism and “burnout” within a couple of months. While too much exercise alone might not be the sole reason for negative symptoms in some people, over-training combined with stress from other factors like imbalanced hormones, a poor diet, and a lack of rest or sleep can all accumulate to serious bodily damage.

How do you know if you have been over-training? Your body will let you know that the total amount of stress on your body is unable to recover and wrestle with the over-training placed on the body structure. The type of exercise you perform should make you happier and more energetic in order to be a long-term health asset and not the opposite. If you’re involved in an exercise that continues to leave you too tired, or it feels forced and doesn’t increase your love of life, then you are truly not doing yourself any favors.

While the threshold of exercise differs from person to person, most experts recommend sticking to about a half-hour to one hour per day, most days of the week, but not every day, to get the most benefit from exercise. It’s important to rest between workouts and take at least one full rest day every week. Sometimes your body needs 2–3 days of rest depending on your goals and level of exercise intensity.

If You’re Over-training, How Do You Know?

There are negative effects of overexercising and they can begin to crop up for people at different points. It is not usually easy to identify what the peak for you or anybody else as well and what it might be. When you know what happens to the body when under too much physical stress, you may be able to avoid and prevent yourself from doing damage. You will then be able to recognize the warning signs.

The following are several signs of over-training that may tell you that you might be overexerting yourself.

  • Feeling more thirsty than usual
  • Changes in your appetite
  • Moodiness, anxiety or depression
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Digestion issues
  • Changes in your heart rate
  • Increased soreness
  • Joint pain
  • Chronic fatigue or exhaustion
  • Changes to your menstrual cycle

If you have just begun a workout routine and notice some soreness or changes in your appetite, weight or sleep schedule, this is NOT anything to be too concerned over. Keep a watch out for developing symptoms if you’ve been exercising for a while and have slowly increased the hours you spend training each week.

If, by chance you are in the stages of preparing for a marathon or sporting event, these short or brief periods of over-training can be a part of the healthy regime. This should not result in too much damage if done for a short period of time. On the other hand, consistently over-training would be capable of causing serious health problems. Some of these can take years to reverse and large hurdles to overcome.

Over-training Hurts You In 8 Different Ways

Moods and Sleep Patterns are Changed

The glands that normally control the production of hormones responsible for keeping your mood perky begin to dysfunction when your body is under too much stress. This happens just like with adrenal insufficiency and over-training syndrome. Many studies show dysfunction of the adrenal axis in over-trained and stressed athletes, sometimes to the point of suffering from insomnia, lack of motivation, irritability, anxiety or depression.

When you experience a combination of nervous and endocrine (hormone) system changes, it can keep you up at night and lead to insomnia, or wake up you up very early in the morning and prevent your from falling back asleep. This pattern leaves you groggy and unable to focus the following day or two.

When your brain has a hard time producing enough “happy hormones” to compete with elevated cortisol levels, overexercising is associated with fatigue, moodiness, and even depressive symptoms like suicidality. (1) In a 2013 study conducted by the Department of Psychiatry at Miami University, they found that among four different patient populations, over-training coincided with increased depression symptoms and suicidal behaviors related to growing pain insensitivity.

Cortisol Levels Rise and You May You Gain Weight

When people battling weight gain are repeatedly told that they simply need to exercise more and cut calories, this may be damaging to their metabolism and might totally backfire. When you compare shorter, but more intense workouts like high-intensity interval training (sometimes called HIIT workouts), with many hours of steady-state exercise (like running), this can actually result in lower metabolic and fat-burning potential.

Fat metabolism can actually decrease with excessive, intense cardio exercise because it elevates cortisol levels, which winds up impairing insulin sensitivity because of the way exercise impacts your hormonal status. (2) High cortisol levels are associated with fat-storing, as is being resistant to insulin that controls blood sugar. (3) The weight loss potential can also decrease fat-burning by convincing your body that it is “starving,” which means you’re unknowingly going to hold onto every precious calorie you eat in order to ensure survival.

If your exercise level is too high and food intake is too low (especially if you are stressed out as well) and you are living in a calorie deficit, your body receives the message to conserve energy it must slow down all functioning. This means you could enter a catabolic state that causes the level of your hunger and thirst to change. Intense cravings for sugar and salt and dehydration may be associated with overexerting yourself.

Here is another important fact: Without even realizing it, many people consume and eat more when exercising often in order to make up for the calories they burned. So, in that case, performing a 30 minute cardio workout may be better for weight loss than 60 minutes of cardio! So, taking it easy and eating a nutrient-dense diet with more calories might be exactly what you need to recover when and if you wind up feeling fatigued and observing an out-of-control appetite due to running yourself into the ground.

Menstrual Cycles, Fertility, and Libido Can Be Negatively Impacted

Too much exercise can negatively impact production of sex hormones (like testosterone and estrogen) associated with libido, fertility and reproductive health. However, unfortunately millions of men and women, particularly young women, overdo it every day. Termed the “Female Athletic Triad,” this complex condition in females caused by over-training and eating too few calories can result in menstrual dysfunction, low energy and decreased bone mineral density. (4)

Well, guess what, you do not need to be a professional athlete to experience these effects. Any woman can develop this condition who overtaxes her body too often.

Over-training does have risks for men too, but a woman’s body appears to be especially sensitive to high levels of exhaustion, stress and operating in a reduced calorie mode. When the body receives the signal that it’s being overworked, the stress hormones begin to fire at a higher rate, which may lead to symptoms similar to PMS, including food cravings like sugar addiction, insomnia, acne, low libido, and other hormone malfunctions.

Adrenal Fatigue or “Insufficiency” Appears

The most positive effects on hormonal health is training in moderation however there is a “point of diminishing returns.” Problems with the adrenal gland is linked to too much exercise without proper rest which can cause chronic stress. (5) “Overtraining Syndrome” (OS) is a severe type of adrenal fatigue from over-training and capable of causing adrenal insufficiency. The adrenal glands become so depleted that they stop producing enough of the crucial “stress hormones,” including cortisol and types of adrenaline.

Overtraining Syndrome is described by The Department of Kinesiology at Texas A&M University as “chronic fatigue, burnout, and staleness, where an imbalance between training/competition, versus recovery, occurs.” What is the result? Loss of appetite, ongoing fatigue, nutrient deficiencies, difficulty sleeping, and even possibly requiring hormone replacement therapy which is a type of serious condition called Addison’s Disease which can develop.

Electrolyte Balance May Be Obstructed

To stay active and healthy, our muscles rely on a delicate balance of fluids (especially water) and electrolyte nutrients — including magnesium, sodium and potassium. The most important muscle in your body, the heart, is not able to function properly when you are frequently low in potassium or these other nutrients because you have been overexerting yourself.

Our muscles use and lowers our storage even more of the extra carbohydrates, electrolytes, and fluid when we exercise and often perspiring at the same time. (6) A long list of disorders, including depression, insomnia and anxiety, can result when your storage of magnesium gets used up during activity. (7)

The risk is also important as so many people are already deficient in magnesium, so, therefore, too much exercise only adds to the problem. Refueling your body after workouts with nutrient-dense foods and allowing enough time to recover so your body can re-calibrate is so important.

Lowers Immunity and Raises Inflammation

An increase in oxidative stress and damage, which leads to aging and illness is also caused by over-training. When your hormone levels abnormally fluctuate and muscle tissue and your joints become overly fatigued, there is a risk of increasing inflammation. This can result in swelling, illness, and pain and it may seem it does not away easily. When overly fatigued, the immune system becomes depressed largely by rising cortisol levels and inflaming the body. (8)

We enter the “starvation mode” when the immune system stops functioning properly and you are more likely to become sick and heal slower. Why does this happen? Well, our body only has so much energy to power our body and it will take that energy to the most important systems first such as the nervous system. This system runs all the others like to keep your heart beating, lungs breathing, digestive organs functioning, etc. While all of these functions are compromised when you overtrain for a long period of time, immunity (along with reproductive health and digestion) is one of the first things to decline.

When you overtrain, there are increased risks for infections. These infections include respiratory tract infections. One crucial aspect of immune function is T-helper lymphocytes. So, not only are these guys are responsible for producing antibodies and killing foreign pathogens, but exercise-related immuno-suppression due to tissue trauma suppresses the body’s ability to produce these helper cells. Unfortunately, this leaves you more prone to becoming sick. With higher levels of stress hormones (cortisol and catecholamines) happening at the same time, it makes it harder to regain energy and heal.

Can Lead to Decreased Strength and Muscle Wasting

During your workout, you don’t actually grow stronger, but instead it is the time afterward when you’re recovering and sleeping. The muscle tissues can’t rebuild themselves fast enough when there is inadequate rest in between workouts.

The process of rebuilding broken-down muscle tissue and muscle recovery can take several days, so if you exhaust already fatigued muscles before they’re ready, you will not see gains in terms of strength and more endurance. If you are running on a low energy supply, your body might instead start burning your own hard-earned muscle for fuel.

Can Cause Heart Damage

For cardiovascular functioning we know moderate exercise is best and doing “too much of a good thing” can be opposite to heart health. Studies of some marathoners and over-exercisers have found higher rates of cardiac events than those with moderate exercises and elevated levels of scarring on heart tissue. (9)

Long-term excessive endurance exercises (including marathons, ultra-marathons, ironman distance triathlons, and very long distance bicycle races) might negatively impact the structure of the heart and arteries, especially when the athlete isn’t replenishing with plenty of sleep and calories. High amounts of stress placed on the heart can potentially cause volume overload of the atria and right ventricle of the heart and thickening of the heart valves (myocardial fibrosis). This added stress can also cause coronary artery calcification, heart beat arrhythmia, artery wall stiffening and changes in blood pressure (diastolic dysfunction).

Overtraining may also produce an altered resting heart rate. Why? It will make the change since the since the body is working on overdrive in the same manner as it does in an emergency (fight, flight or freeze) response.Want to monitor it to see if this is actually happening? Just check your heart rate in the morning after getting up and track how it changes depending on your activity level for the week.

Stop Overtraining and Do This Instead!

We read it and hear it all the time as our culture proclaims the message of exercising more and eating less as the key to health and weight control. Hopefully now you can see there is definitely a better and safer way to live healthy. Yes, exercise is important, but not the excessive type that causes you to feel overly hungry, very tired, not hungry enough, and anxious if you missed a workout.

Now considered the exercise when it comes to accomplishing more in less time, shorter bouts of higher-intensity exercise, coupled with weight-bearing (or strength) movements that’s tailored to your own goals and needs is now the gold-standard. Since only a fraction of the time invested, the high-intensity interval training has gained attention for providing the same health benefits (or even more) as extended steady-state cardio sessions.

To achieve the results in the “afterburn effect” which burns more calories (even after you’re done working out) and keeps you from dedicating hours to exercise, alternate between intense periods of work — usually at about 85 percent of your max heart rate or more — followed by intervals of brief rest. Because HIIT workouts, Burst training or sprinting fast reduces the amount of time the body spends in stress mode, it also lowers the stress response.

So, as you learned when it comes to your body composition, doing too much cardio does not promote muscle growth, and might actually break down existing muscle. Think of the athletic build of a sprinter, on the other hand: They’re normally fit, muscular, and seem full of life.

Instead of the long periods doing “traditional cardio” like running on a treadmill, check out these many benefits of switching up your workout routine by lowering the duration and kicking up intensity, and very important, resting when it’s appropriate.

  • Here are some of the health results of exercising in this way:
    • Decreased blood pressure levels
    • Improved blood cholesterol profiles
    • Increased resting metabolic rate (meaning your body can burn more calories all day!)
    • Increased oxygen use by muscles
    • Increased energy levels and mood (from a boost in endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine, which give you a natural happiness high)
    • Increased insulin sensitivity (lower risk of diabetes)
    • More efficient removal of metabolic waste from muscles during resting periods
    • Reduced risk of stroke, acute coronary syndrome and heart disease
    • And of course more time to yourself to do whatever makes you happy!

The key to do HIIT or Burst-training workouts safely without burnout out or injuring yourself is to start gradually and to rest in between tougher workouts. The beauty of HIIT is that it can be done in as little as 15–20 minutes at a time, and doesn’t require a daily commitment. In fact, it’s important to take days off in between intense workouts because this is when “the magic happens” — your body repairs itself and gives you noticeable gains in terms of speed, stamina and strength.

Many people prefer to focus on doing some sort of “happy movement” daily instead of thinking about exercise as something they “have to do” aside from trying to incorporate some resistance training and HIIT-style exercises into their weekly routine. Going for walks (especially outdoors), practicing yoga, dancing, swimming and cycling are all examples of gratifying exercises that can be done almost daily when performed in a moderate, healthy way.

In fact, this is the way that many of the healthiest populations on earth stay active: Walking around and staying busy throughout the day, gardening, doing errands on foot, and practicing hobbies or sports that involve being up on your feet.

The bottom line is that you must learn to listen to your body and judge when “enough” exercise turns into “too much.” Give yourself eight hours of sleep a night (sometimes more), take full rest days to relax, and remember to eat enough calories from high energy and performance foods to support your level of activity.

Overexercise is a very real danger if you work out every single day or more than once a day. Also, if you feel you have to make yourself exercise despite feeling wiped out, and if you do cardio or sprint workouts too often while only focusing on burning calories, you may also be at risk. There is a balance for everyone, and it’s up to you to determine what that amount is. Learn to judge how you feel and work in partnership with your body and this way the right amount of exercise will come naturally to you.

About the author

Raeann Cain

Hi, I'm Raeann and over 20 years ago I had a terrible experience with low back pain that left me rolling out of bed, crawling on my hands and knees to the bathtub. I could not even stand up because I was in so much pain! After meeting a neurosurgeon who thought I was too young for surgery, he sent me on another path with alternative methods. Now, through many hours of training including pain science, neuroscience, and following the latest evidence-based methods of therapy, it is time to give the power back to the individual who is hurting and give them the truth on how the body heals!