If you're one of those athletes who habitually heads to the weight room each morning, compromising sleep and skipping breakfast, maybe it's time to make a resolution to do less. You might find that if you cut back to a more reasonable workout schedule, your health and performance will actually benefit.
Likewise, just as coaches, parents and teammates urge less-motivated athletes to get to the weight room a few times a week, they can also play a key role in recognizing the following signs of exercise obsession.
RELATED: Is Overtraining Real?
Signs of Overtraining
How do you know if you're working out too much? Jordan D. Metzl, MD, a sports medicine physician at New York City's Hospital for Special Surgery, says, "There is a point where additional exercise ceases to be beneficial. Exercise physiologists call it 'overtraining syndrome,' a condition of chronic exhaustion that occurs after many months, and sometimes years, of regular, intense exercise."
Dr. Metzl lists other physical overtraining signs:
Plateauing – No More Gains in Size, Strength or Endurance
"The No. 1 red flag: You've stopped improving. No matter how many more miles or hours or reps you put in, you can't get any faster, stronger or better. Your body has stopped responding to exercise, and the plateau has gone on for several months."
Ellington Darden, Ph.D., author of The Body Fat Breakthrough, says, "Any more exercise than the precise amount required for optimal results is not merely wasted effort, it is counterproductive. . . Recovery always comes before growth. Recovery and growth both require time. When you train too long or don't rest enough between workouts to allow for full recovery, muscle growth will not occur."
Dr. Metzl says overtraining often results in overuse injuries—e.g., stress fractures, partial tendon tears from repetitive stress—which can be exacerbated when you disregard the pain signals and continue to exercise. "If you work your body too hard, it will break down," he says. "It's like any other machine that needs maintenance and restoration. I think a deep drive for excellence and performance is huge for any athlete—it's what fuels you. But if you don't listen to your body and know your limitations, you'll never know when to back off. And then, again, guess who's limping home?"
Metzl says that when athletes cannot perform because of an injury, then they finally seek treatment. "Typically, the physical manifestations of overtraining eventually wind up sidelining the athlete completely, at which point he or she is forced to confront the condition head-on."
Added Body Fat
Another result of the misguided notion that if some exercise is good, more is even better: unnecessary body fat. Heed the words of Michele Olson, professor of exercise physiology at Auburn University: "You're also stressing out your body if you're crushing Spin or a run day after day. That triggers a surge in the hormone cortisol, which studies have linked to belly fat. The uptick in cortisol prevents testosterone, which helps build muscle tissue, from doing its job, so definition suffers."
You Get Less Fit from Excess Workouts
According to certified personal trainer Holly Parker, a lecturer in the Psychology Department at Harvard University, "The benefits you want from working out—getting leaner, stronger, healthier—reverse when you don't take breaks. For starters, your muscles aren't designed to kill it 24/7. Exercise creates tiny tears in muscle fiber, and when given a chance to heal, the fibers build up. But without recovery, you won't see those changes in tone or strength."
Weakened Immune System
Without enough sleep/rest and balanced nutrition for recovery, performing high-intensity training several days a week compromises the immune system, leading to physical ailments such as colds and flu, chronic joint and muscle inflammation, and emotional issues such as depression and anxiety. Columbia University researchers say that "Working out is one of the best things you can do for your overall health, but too much of a good thing can actually be bad. . . working out too much can cause depression, anxiety and a weakened immune system, making you more susceptible to getting sick." The 2013 Columbia University study recommended working out a minimum of 2.5 hours a week and a maximum of 7.5 hours per week.
Preoccupation with One's Physique
Measuring your physique against model bodybuilders on magazine covers can create impossible expectations and eventually impact your health.
Guilt Feelings from Missing a Workout
Making exercise a number 1 priority each day can backfire, to the point where you sacrifice recovery-boosting sleep and nutrition. For compulsive exercisers, unintentionally missing a daily workout due to unforeseen circumstances can cause anxiety and guilt, promoting the erroneous notions that their muscles will stop growing, or that they'll get fat because they missed a workout, or that they'll regress in sports and lose strength. Quite the opposite is true.
Doing Too Many Workouts Becomes Physically and Mentally Draining
Instead of looking forward to or being motivated to work out, Dr. Metzl says that "in most cases, the exercise addict no longer enjoys exercise. They tend to treat every training session like their worst day at work, and if they compete, they dread their races. These athletes aren't just nervous: They're exhausted and look it."
Ways to Work Out Healthier
Change From Split Routines to 2 or 3 Full-Body Workouts Per Week
Keeping up a split routine workout program—e.g., arms/legs Mondays and Thursdays, back/chest Tuesdays and Fridays, shoulders Wednesdays and Saturdays—can get repetitive and exhausting in addition to overworking joints and muscle groups. Periodically switch to two or three full-body workouts on non-consecutive days for a few weeks for more recovery time between workouts and a refreshing change.
Follow High-Intensity Training Days with Lower-Intensity Days
Prevent overtraining by doing a high-intensity weight training workout followed the next day by an "active recovery" low-intensity workout—e.g., a long brisk walk or bike ride.
Vary Your Daily Exercise Routine with Fun Activities
Practicing sports movements every day makes you better, just as practicing the piano several hours a day perfects your musical skills. In the weight room, however, fewer workouts can be more physically and mentally productive. Heed Dr. Metzl's advice: "Perform your central, sport-specific training however many times a week you need to in order to achieve your competitive goal. On the other days? Change it up. Think of them as workout vacation days, but instead of lying around, do something for fun." Instead of always hitting the gym, he suggests taking a yoga class to improve strength and flexibility, or doing Pilates for core strength—or go swimming or bike riding, or take a brisk walk, or play Ultimate Frisbee.
Try Alternate Workout Locations to Stay Motivated
Rather than head to the weight room or a nearby health club every day, try outdoor workouts a few times a week—especially on beautiful sunny days—for an invigorating change of scenery. You'll not only get health-promoting vitamin D from a bodyweight workout at the beach or park, you'll also avoid monotony from exercising in the same surroundings day after day.
If You Must Train Daily, Do Shorter, More Intense Workouts
If you feel the need to squeeze in daily workouts, instead of always doing lengthy 45- or 60-minute workouts comprising several sets for each muscle group, do shorter and more intense 15- to 30-minute workouts. Spend less rest time between sets or do supersets. Or, try an at-home 10- or 15-minute bodyweight full-body workout comprising Planks, Push-Ups, Wall Squats and Lunges. Reducing workout time means you'll have more time to sleep each morning and eat breakfast.
- Metzl, Jordan D., MD. The Exercise Cure. (2013, Rodale, Inc.). p. 164, 165.
- Darden, Ellington, PhD. The Body Fat Breakthrough. (2014, Rodale, Inc.). pp. 92, 93.
- Metzl, Jordan D., MD. The Athlete's Book of Home Remedies. (2012, Rodale, Inc.). pp. xviii, xxiii.
- Self Magazine. October 17, 2013. "How Much Is Too Much Working Out?" by Natalie Gingerich MacKenzie.
- Columbia University Teachers College Media Center Research Publication. "Study Pinpoints Just How Much Exercise Is Good for Mental Health." November 4, 2012 Issue.
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