Q. “I’m struggling to know how much exercise is too much! I’ve recently just started exercising (a little background, I’ve been fat all my life and I’m only now starting to get out of the diet cycle and eat properly (not cardboard Weight Watchers meals) and move my body… after a difficult breakup I’m keen to get in shape and finally focus on myself. I know being fat won’t stop me from finding a new husband but I’d prefer to be healthy for myself). HIIT is my favorite because I love the intensity……. however I worry that I might’ve gone too far in the opposite direction because at the same time, it also feels like a chore and I don’t know if I’m overdoing it. Like, I never used to exercise EVER and now I’m going 7 days a week. My muscles ache all the time but I tell myself that pushing through the pain is worth it but at the same time, my arms and legs hurt so much that I wonder if I’m doing long term damage or even maintaining proper form. I don’t want a PT or an instructor (I’m a DIY kinda girl) but how do I know how much exercise is too much? I’m scared that if I back off, I’ll end up falling into old habits and doing nothing at all.”
Ahhh, exercise. It seems so simple but for a lot of us, we have a complicated relationship with it.
We hear a lot in health/fitness circles about how much exercise is too little (for example, it’s widely accepted that we should all aim to move our bodies for at least 30 minutes each day – which is totally achievable!)… but how much exercise is too much?
If you’re embarking on a new fitness program and you’re excited with the results that you’re getting, it’s understandable to be motivated by this.
To assess whether you’re over-exercising, let’s break this issue down into what we know about exercise and start from the beginning.
How much is enough?
What countless studies have recommended is that the amount of exercise needed for solid cardiovascular and metabolic health is:
- 150 minutes p/week of moderate intensity exercise (like brisk walking); OR
- 75 minutes p/week of vigorous exercise (like running); AND
- 2x instances of full body resistance exercises p/week (such as weight lifting, pilates or yoga). These activities can also be counted as part of the 150 minutes if your heart rate is elevated during completing them.
To meet these recommendations, you could perform 5 sessions of 15-30 minutes each. And depending on how intense your workouts are, your workouts can be shorter.
Presuming that your goals are based around overall health and longevity (rather than intense training goals for competition or otherwise), the above recommendations indicate that a modest amount of exercise is actually enough. Of course if you’re also aiming for fat loss, you may also be increasing your training frequency at present and if that’s the case, I strongly recommend doing so under the guidance of a personal trainer, doctor or other health professional who can ensure that you’re not overdoing it and putting yourself at risk of physical injury.
So, we know what’s enough now… but what about too much?
Unfortunately it’s not as simple to determine ‘too much’ as it is to determine ‘enough’ and this is largely rooted in the fact that all of our bodies are unique and depending on a set of complex variables (including our caloric intake, lifestyle, medical history, previous injuries and more), we may be able to handle less/more exercise than other bodies.
Contrary to what these bullshit, “fitspo” Jillian Michaels-esque tropes will tell you, if you puke/faint/die during training… you’re going entirely too hard. Overtraining is a very real condition. It’s less to do with not being “tough enough” to handle intense workouts and more to do with changes in your heart rate, excessively elevated cortisol after exercising and immune suppression that can result in mood changes, insomnia and adrenal fatigue.
How do I tell if I’m exercising too much?
Generally speaking, most non-athletes won’t experience overtraining related symptoms and any over-exertion can be resolved by taking an intuitive approach to exercise. This includes:
- Varying your workouts to give areas a break (e.g. if you work your legs on Monday, give them a break on Tuesday);
- Ensuring to work out according to the level of energy that you feel and not pushing yourself to work through pain/injury; and
- Embracing rest days as a vital part of your exercise strategy (as without time to recuperate, your muscle groups will struggle to perform at an optimum level).
If you’re applying notions of fear, guilt and shame to your workouts (because you fear what will happen if you stop, are ashamed that it took you so long to start or feel guilty if you don’t work out), this indicates that there may be some greater mental issues around your relationship with your body that you’re taking with you to the gym.
Remember, exercise is about the relationship between you and your body and all the wonderful things that it’s capable. It is not about punishment, deprivation or repenting… and if you treat it as such, you’re going to wind up backing yourself into a corner.
If you feel that you’re harbouring some negative emotional ties to food, exercise and your relationship with movement, it’s crucial that you work through these so that you can live a happy and healthy life. Similarly, your health goals will ultimately be not as positively focused as they can be if they’re tied up in wanting to be attractive or worthy to others, rather than for yourself.
If you feel that there’s something more serious going on at a physical level, I recommend keeping a close watch on yourself and keeping notes in a diary over a period of 2-4 weeks around your exercise behaviour.
Some things to keen an eye out for:
- Paying increased attention to your body shape/weight and increased body dissatisfaction
- Slowed immune system (e.g. are you becoming sick more frequently?)
- Pains/aches in any specific areas of the body
- Changes in your self-perception
- Loss of interest in exercise
If you note any of the above changes in yourself around exercise, this isn’t necessarily symptomatic of overtraining but may be indicative of other issues (such as a nutritional deficiency or disordered eating).
In your notes, also pay attention to what else is going on in your life – are working later/more stressful hours? Are you going through personal issues (such as a death, breakup or divorce)? Have there been any major life events that have caused a change in you?
Upon reflecting on those notes, if you’re concerned, I then recommend taking that info to your doctor for their professional opinion. Self-diagnosis of overtraining is ultimately dangerous (because you’re diagnosing yourself based on perception, without knowledge of other underlying medical issues that may be impacting your body’s response to exercise) so ensure to discuss any concerns you have with the appropriate medical professional.
- If you’re not enjoying exercise anymore, ask yourself what exercise you may enjoy more – something more/less intense, group/solo exercise… look for ways to vary your routine to see what you respond well to.
- If you find yourself dreading your next workout or if you’re watching the clock the whole time, give yourself permission to take a few days off and see how you feel. Gradually reintroduce exercise (and vary them) and see if your excitement returns.
- Focus on how your body feels during exercise, rather than how it looks. If you can keep the idea that exercise is there to make you feel going at the front of your mind, it can be easier to detach from any guilt you may feel around not going hard enough at it.
- Remember to rest. Rest is not the enemy – in fact it’s necessary. And contrary to popular belief, guilt-exercising to the point where you hate it is more likely to make you fall back into old patterns of not exercising than giving yourself a rest day is.
- Breathe, and focus on how your body feels during your exercises. If something hurts or you find yourself “pushing through” then stop and move on to another workout. There’s a difference between “feeling the burn” and feeling pain – the burn is your muscles hard at work, and pain is a sign that your body isn’t performing something properly.
- Assess your goals and see if they align with your exercising frequency. If you’re aiming for general health, you don’t need to train like an athlete. If you’re aiming for general health but enjoy vigorous exercise, ensure that you’re doing it out of enjoyment and not fear/perceived obligation.
Key takeaway point:Fear, guilt and shame have no place in your workout routine Click To Tweet