The saying “Work smarter, not harder,” likely isn’t something you’d expect to be applied to exercise. By conventional wisdom, a tougher workout means better results and being sore the next day means it’s working. Yet there can be too much of a good thing, and working out too hard and too often can have a range of negative consequences while hampering your results.

 

Like everything else, exercise can be taken too far. As an extreme example, being able to run a marathon likely means you’re in good shape, but running a marathon every single day would quickly take its toll. The same principle applies to any level of fitness. Even if you aren’t doing something obviously excessive, such as attempting to lift a far-too-heavy weight, the steady wear and tear on your body can be draining.

 

Exercise is a form of stress on your body. By pushing yourself further than you would normally have to, you actually damage your muscle cells. The body’s process of repairing and replacing those cells causes muscle growth, called hypertrophy. But growth occurs while you rest, not while you work out. When you exercise too much, you place constant stress on your body without giving it enough time to recover and grow.

 

The side effects of overexercising run from mild to severe. The first signs a workout has gone too far are dizziness, nausea and cramping. These are all signs of dehydration, the most common exertion-related issue according to Dr. Wendell Pahls, director of Emergency and Transfer Service at Baptist Health in Little Rock.

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Dr. Wendell Pahls

“It is very easy, particularly in the summer months, to overexert yourself,” Pahls said. “A lot of folks will get out and decide that they’re going to go take a run, which they’ve done fine in the pretty spring weather. Then you go out in the summer weather, and you can easily get overexerted, overheated, dehydrated, and go home and discover that muscle cramps are absolutely no fun whatsoever.”

 

If you begin to overheat, you might actually stop sweating as opposed to sweating more. Thus, if you notice you are sweating much less than you would expect for the exercise you’re doing, you should stop immediately and rehydrate.

 

“A really good way to make sure that you stay healthy while you’re exerting yourself is to make sure you pre-hydrate: get fluids on board before you actually get out and try and exert yourself,” Pahls said.

 

In the case of more sustained overexertion, routinely pushing yourself beyond your limits can lead to ongoing health issues. On the milder end of the spectrum, you may experience lethargy, chronic soreness and a lack of enthusiasm for exercise.

 

“A lot of people get in this hamster wheel of ‘more is better’ for soreness,” said Lee Ann Jolly, PhD, co-owner of Little Rock fitness center Jolly Bodies. “Soreness is actually a very poor indicator of workout effectiveness or progress. It’s more related to genetics and how we respond, as well as the specific stimuli you’re using or type of exercise that you’re doing.

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Dr. Lee Ann Jolly
(Photo By Jason Master)

“If you feel it when you’re in the workout, it doesn’t matter if you’re sore or not afterwards. You’re doing the work, feeling it where you should, during the workout. If anything, we’re worried about people being too sore for too long.”

 

Overexerting yourself can also reduce the quality and effectiveness of your workouts. You may eventually notice your progress has stalled or even reversed, and your resting heart rate (which is ideally low) actually begins to increase rather than decrease.

 

“People are surprised to hear me say this, as someone who’s been doing this for so long: no, I don’t love working out. If you tell me that I can work out less and get better results, then heck yeah,” Jolly said. “I don’t want to feel like I’m just bashing myself into a wall every day.”

 

Expected soreness can develop over time into tendonitis, a painful warning that, if not heeded, could turn into serious injury. Putting too much strain on your body can eventually cause it to break, such as a snapped tendon that can be crippling and require surgery. In rare cases, someone who has been drastically overexercising can develop rhabdomyolysis, where proteins and electrolytes contained in muscles move into the bloodstream with potentially life- threatening effects.

 

“[Rhabdomyolysis] is a condition that causes rapid and pathological breakdown of normal muscle tissue,” Pahls said. “It is often a consequence of physical exertion, sometimes trauma and occasionally infection. Unfortunately, it leads to serious consequences.”

 

Potential problems from rhabdomyolysis include a dangerously irregular heartbeat, vomiting, seizures, kidney failure and cardiac issues.

 

“I’ve seen a number of patients, including an unfortunate young man that went out and decided to do wind sprints to get himself ready for fall training,” Pahls said. “[He] overexerted himself and went through acute renal failure from his rhabdomyolysis from the extreme exertion of his legs while he was running.”

 

Mental health issues can also be both a cause and an effect of overexercise. Charles Chamblee, PhD, a licensed professional counselor with Baptist Health’s outpatient counseling program, described six criteria for identifying overexercise. Together, these signs show a person isn’t just exercising too much – they may actually be addicted to it.

Charles Chamblee, PhD

There are several possible roots to the problem, but as Chamblee noted it seems to have become significantly more common after the pandemic.

 

“How much of that is people just getting back into pre-pandemic levels of exercise versus the identification of this as some sort of addiction? I think that’s still yet to be determined,” Chamblee said.

 

Most people will exercise simply for performance or to improve their health. But some conditions, such as body dysmorphia, can spur compulsive exercise when a person’s self-image does not accurately reflect what they see in the mirror, whether too big, too small or not muscular enough. Eating disorders such as bulimia, anorexia and avoidant restrictive food intake disorder can also be major contributors, as well as OCD in cases where exercise becomes an obsession. In other cases, overexercise may just be a result of social pressures or a misunderstanding of what healthy exercise looks like.

 

“People put so much pressure on themselves to try to quantify how dedicated they are. It makes sense because the rest of our culture functions that way,” Jolly said. “We put a number on everything, and so I know that can cloud our judgment. Those are the kinds of things that get in the way of us listening to our body.

 

“When you’re in group exercise and you’ve got friends that are there in a community, it’s very hard to say, ‘Hey, gang, I’m not coming today,’ when you know everyone else is going. You’re like, ‘Why can’t I just have the energy, why? I wish I could.’ And so it messes with you mentally.”

 

Luckily, if you feel like you might be overexercising, there’s a pretty clear solution: work out less, rest more. The more difficult part is finding the proper balance. While any doctor or health organization can recommend a basic level of exercise, no one can tell you exactly how much exercise is right for you. That’s going to depend on your personal health, abilities and goals, and you can only find it through experience.

 

“Realistically, unless you’re a competitive athlete, an hour to an hour and a half, three to four times a week, is a very aggressive but very appropriate exercise regimen,” Pahls said.

 

Seven to eight hours of sleep per night and eating adequately with proper nutrition are also essential to both weight loss and regular exercise. The right diet for you will depend on your goals, as putting on muscle and trimming pounds require different nutrition. As a general baseline, Pahls recommends the 40/30/30 rule: 40 percent protein, 30 percent complex carbohydrates and 30 percent fat.

 

“That’s a very good, healthy diet that is edible,” Pahls said. “You can’t stay on a diet of cardboard and ice water for the rest of your life, which some people try to do. You have to eat reasonably and you have to eat healthy.”

 

The ideal caloric intake can vary drastically, from as low as 1,300 calories a day for a very small person to as high as 2,500 calories for a larger person. Additionally, you have to manage your expectations of what goals are really achievable.

 

“You take a woman who’s 5’2” and weighs 107 pounds, and she wants to lose 15 pounds and get down to 92, that’s probably not healthy,” Pahls said. “You get a guy that is 5’8” and 370 pounds and he says, ‘I think I need to weigh 135,’ that’s never, short of some type of bariatric program, going to be something that he can attain. Those are not legitimate, real goals.

 

“A healthy weight loss, if you’re really doing things optimally, is about a pound a week. That requires significant discipline. If somebody says, ‘I want to lose 15 pounds,’ you’re looking at four, five or six months of determined diet and exercise to make sure that you’re having a healthy weight loss.”

 

To find the right balance, Jolly recommends the rule of thirds.

 

“If you’re finding a good balance in life and working out, managing all that stress, a third of the time the workout should feel amazing,” she said. “You’re hitting it, you’re able to lift, you feel it in your muscles and at the end of it you feel good, there’s an endorphin rush. A third of the time, they’re ‘meh.’ It’s not that they were great, but they weren’t awful, you’re just kind of right there in the middle.

 

“And then a third of the time, maybe you thought, ‘I wanted to lift XYZ weights, I had it set, but my body wouldn’t do it. You’re not feeling it.”

 

If your workout experience roughly matches the feeling of thirds, chances are you’re right on point. But if you start to feel like more than a third of your exercises aren’t feeling right, then you may need to cut back. For example, if you work out six times a week and on three of those days you just aren’t quite up to it, your performance is backsliding and you start feeling the pain right away, you may want to instead only work out five times a week and give yourself an extra day to rest, or swap to a less intense regimen.

 

Exercise is hardly the only source of stress in a person’s life; any number of personal issues, from family to relationships to work, can pile more stress on top. Some people work out as a form of stress relief and while this certainly can be helpful, it creates yet another balancing act where you need to avoid going too far.

 

Rather than focusing on calories burned, miles run, pounds lifted or even simple aesthetics as milestones for exercise, Jolly recommends using your resting heart rate as an easily trackable measure of health. This places the emphasis on recovery and the health of your heart and lungs, rather than encouraging you to constantly push yourself to what might be an unhealthy degree. Serious injuries from overexertion are not limited to the likes of Olympic athletes; they can and do happen to average people in everyday workout settings.

 

“For most anybody that I work with, I’d recommend doing a couple private sessions so I can see how they move and where their current ability level is at,” Jolly said. “Then you have the knowledge as a participant in a group setting to see around those corners and know where your limitations are.”

 

For those who compulsively exercise, it likely isn’t as easy to just take time off and give their body and chance to rest. In those cases, outside help is crucial.

 

“Oftentimes, those who recognize any sort of compulsion or some sort of excessive activity in their lives, there can be an aspect of embarrassment to it,” Chamblee said. “So they’ll not want to tell anybody, they will want to try to figure it out on their own. And one of the biggest keys in being able to make any significant behavioral change oftentimes is accountability, having someone that you trust enough to be able to let them into what’s going on with you, and you ask for their help, their accountability, in making some of those changes.”

 

Setting meaningful goals outside of exercising can also help you move your focus away from working out and get involved in other areas of life. When you no longer see exercise as the end-all, be-all of achievements, you avoid missing out on other, more meaningful opportunities.

 

“It may be important to talk to a counselor,” Chamblee said, “somebody who can help unpack some of the things that are leading to these behaviors. So many times, we see that it is a previous life experience that helps somebody to cope with things in an unhealthy manner. And whether we’re talking about exercise, eating disorders or some other behavioral thing, it can come back to something as small as a comment from a parent or a teacher when they were a child that just got stuck in their brain.”

 

Whether the addiction springs from a traumatic experience or a simple, offhand comment, identifying how current behaviors link back to that event can allow one to process it properly and develop healthier coping mechanisms.

 

The common thread is being aware of what is reasonable, attainable and sustainable. Unfortunately, with the constant bombardment of conflicting information from social media, it has become increasingly difficult to figure out the right path.

 

“As you’re taking in all of this information from the internet and social media, check your sources,” Jolly said. “What qualifications does the person that is stating X, Y and Z have? Ultimately, the consumer is the one that’s going to pay, whether they wasted money on a product, were over-promised and under-delivered, or they just feel stuck again on this hamster wheel of not knowing what to do. And so sometimes the best thing to do is just shut all that out and take a deep breath.”

 

At the end of the day, there might not be a silver bullet, but there is a silver lining when it comes to exercise: less can be more. Figuring out the right balance for yourself in working out, dieting and resting will result in better results than pushing yourself until you break something. 

 

ARE YOU OVERDOING IT?

 

Too much exercise can actually be bad for your physical health and obsessing over working out  can speak to your mental state as well. Here are six things to look for that may suggest you’re out of balance.

 

Is exercise the most important thing in your life? Does your commitment to it prevent you from being involved in other activities?

 

Have interpersonal conflicts arisen because of your  commitment to exercise? Has someone confronted you, worried you were exercising to the detriment of your health or relationships?

 

Do you use exercise as a way to change your mood, using it to escape from life or get a buzz?

 

Has the amount of time you spend exercising increased and is it encroaching on other aspects of your life?

 

If you miss exercising, does it lead to mood instability or irritability?

 

If you try to cut down on your level of exercise, do you later return to, or even exceed, your previous level?

 

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