Are You Exercising Too Much?

You’re waking up early (or staying up late) to get in all of your reps or steps. According to your tracker, you’re burning enough to consistently end each day with plenty of uneaten calories in the bank. And you’re not sure it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have your mail forwarded to the gym.

In short, you’re exercising a lot. In theory, this is a good thing, but if your incessant sweat sessions are leaving you feeling more exhausted than exhilarated, you could be pushing it too far.

Is there such a thing as too much exercise? A point where the benefits begin to dwindle and negative repercussions take their place? The experts agree that too much of a good thing can indeed backfire.

Signs That You’re Overdoing Exercise

You know the signs of the right amount of exercise: that adrenaline rush that comes after a run, the healthy amount of muscle soreness, the boost of energy that lingers long after the workout. On the other hand, if you’re overdoing it, the effects won’t be quite as enjoyable.

Josh Cox, certified personal trainer at Anytime Fitness, says that if you’re demanding too much of your body, it will let you know. "You'll notice things like your normal exercise routine being consistently harder than it used to be, or that you can’t quite get out of that rut, no matter how hard you try."

You may also notice a building feeling of resentment toward exercise, a begrudging feeling that might be mistaken for the "no pain, no gain" mentality. Your mood might become altered, as you find yourself feeling irritable, short-tempered or snappish with family and friends.

Ever heard of "skinny fat"? Cox says that’s another common side effect of over-exercising. "Sure, you'll lose weight—but you will retain more body fat, as your body fights for its own survival and holds onto what it now deems as a precious resource," he says.

Dr. Keith Sparks with ICT Muscle & Joint Clinic says two main signs of overdoing a training program are a constant, dull ache throughout the day—which may increase with movement—or a sharp, stabbing pain with certain movements. "These are two classic signs of damaged tissue at the site of pain," he explains. "When a person experiences a constant, dull ache, it means there is a chemical or mechanical inflammation due to over-stressed tissues. If the pain increases with movement, regardless of direction, or if there is a sharp, stabbing pain with a movement, then mechanical pain receptors have been stimulated and are saying, ‘Hey, I'm hurt, don't do this.’"

Another common result of too much exercise is the dreaded P-word: plateau. Ashley Pitt, personal trainer and creator of the healthy lifestyle blog A Lady Goes West, says you may find yourself stuck on a plateau no matter how frequently or furiously you work out. "You may notice that you are no longer losing weight, building muscles or getting more fit. [This occurs] because you're pushing too hard and stunting your improvements, not giving your body enough time to repair," she says.

Fatigue will also rear its lethargic head. Suddenly, getting off the couch to go get the mail will seem like the equivalent of running a triathlon in a weighted vest, says Cox. "Every decision you make becomes a strain as you start to ‘conserve your energy for working out.’"

Overtraining in Women

In addition to the universal effects of overexertion, Pitt points out that females who overdo it can face their own unique issues of hormonal imbalance. She warns that overtraining in women can lead to an issue called hypothalamic amenorrhea, which is essentially the loss of the menstrual cycle.

"Basically, the reproductive system shuts down to account for the extra stress the body is getting from too much exercise," says Pitt. "The loss of a menstrual cycle can lead to a host of other issues for women."

Women who start to notice their periods becoming irregular, lighter and longer apart may be exercising too much. If that is the case, it’s best to talk to your doctor. They might recommend that you cut back on HIIT workouts and make sure exercise sessions are never longer than an hour, with at least two to three days of rest built into the week. It may also be necessary to ramp up calorie intake, particularly healthy fats.

The Importance of Quality vs. Quantity

If you’re walking or jogging on autopilot for hours every day and not seeing the results you want, you might get more benefit from shorter, higher-intensity sessions in which you’re super-engaged and focused on each movement.

"It's all about working smarter, not blindly," says Cox. "The truth is, altering your health for the better does require hard work. But blindly pursuing your goals in a sweaty frenzy while ignoring your body's distress signals—that's a whole different ball game. Working hard doesn't automatically equate to good results if you're not mindful of what you're doing and quick to adjust when necessary."

That’s not the say that quantity is a bad thing. The key is to ensure that it’s built on a foundation of quality and is ramped up gradually. "The best athletes in the world train by increasing their quantity (volume, load, speed) on a solid foundation over years, not months," says Dr. Sparks. "Quantity built on poor quality will always lead to poor movement patterns, which in turn will equate to pain when the body can no longer compensate enough to accommodate the strain placed on the tissues."

To achieve quality over quantity, Pitt recommends shifting the focus to less movement done right. "Short bouts of Tabata (20 seconds of hard exercise followed by 10 seconds of rest) and HIIT (high-intensity interval training) can be done in less than 20 minutes, and these workouts will up your fitness game just as much, if not more than, long, steady-state cardio. You don't have to do them every day, just two to three times a week, in addition to some other strength training."

How Much Exercise Do You Really Need?

Although there’s no one-size-fits-all answer, the ACSM released some general recommendations for how much exercise is needed to reap overall health and cardiovascular benefits. According to these guidelines, adults should engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week (or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity) and strength training two or three times a week.

"From my standpoint, I've seen people find fantastic success making it to the gym three or four times a week for about an hour each visit," says Cox. "That said, it's about being mindful of all your life habits, not just exercise."

Dr. Sparks says that the "right" amount of exercise will be different for everyone. The key is to not exercise beyond your functional capacity, which is the point at which a person or athlete is no longer able to maintain an ideal movement pattern due to the magnitude of the strain on the body. "The issue with many unaware gym goers is that they train beyond their current functional capacity, trying to ‘empty the tank’ to their absolute fatigue every time they train. This will always lead to dysfunction and pain."

Pitt agrees that everyone can handle a different amount of exercise. A seasoned athlete may be able to handle long hours of workouts each day—although, often, seasoned athletes and professional athletes have a lot of recovery, massages and professional methods to make sure they are not overdoing it—whereas someone who is new to exercising may only be able to handle four 30-minute sessions each week.

"It all depends on your goals, fitness ability and system sensitivity," says Pitt. "Generally, it's great for the average person to get at least 30 minutes of exercise five days a week (and that doesn't include living an active lifestyle and getting steps in on the daily). Those 30 minutes should include a variety of strength training, cardio and flexibility each week."

What to Do if You’ve Been Overtraining

The answer might seem obvious—slow down and exercise less—but that is often easier said than done.

"One thing to keep in mind is that exercising too much is usually symptomatic of something greater—a loss of control in the individual’s life and a desperate attempt at reclamation," says Cox. "Everything else is crumbling down around us, but at least we can count on being able to control that next workout."

Cox says that, in many cases, the approach of simply not exercising as much still leaves intact the very real problem of whatever drove the person to overdo it in the first place. His advice is to not settle for simply exercising less, but to dig deeper to find the driving force of the compulsion.

"Pursue therapy, meditation or introspective hobbies to get to the root of what you're trying to ignore," Cox advises. "When you get to the heart of whatever that is, odds are you'll find a lot of the peace you've been looking for."