Most people know the perils of exercising too little, but what about over-exercising? Indeed, too much exercise poses risks and can harm health, especially when the pursuit veers into exercise addiction.
So exactly how much exercise is too much? As with anything related to health, it’s dependent on the individual.
Luckily, there are a few signs and symptoms that can provide insight.
What Is Over Exercising?
Although not a formal definition, over-exercise can be defined by an amount that causes more physical and mental consequences than benefits.
Exercise is an acute stressor that literally tears and breaks down muscle, but adequate rest allows them to repair and grow in strength and size, assuming proper nutrition as well. Thus, taking rest days is essential to progress with all types of fitness goals.
Furthermore, not taking rest days can impede progress and results because over-exercising is associated with:
- Unintended weight gain
- Mental burnout
- A depressed immune system
- Increased cortisol (stress hormone) production
- Increased injury rate
- Lower fitness levels and decreased performance
However, explicitly defining “too much exercise” is difficult because everyone has a different threshold. For example, elite athletes can usually withstand a high amount of intense workouts and still lead a healthy life.
On the other hand, the average person may only be able to tolerate three to five times a week of light to vigorous exercise without adversely risking physical, emotional, and mental health.
Furthermore, it is sometimes hard to distinguish between a streak of low motivation versus actually exercising too much. It is completely normal not to want to workout on occasion but is also important to be able to assess the difference between needing a rejuvenation day and needing a longer workout break due to overtraining.
Telltale Signs of Excessive Exercise:
- Decreased performance despite working out longer/harder
- Constantly feeling tired
- Sore and heavy limbs that do not seem to recover
- Frequent low motivation to exercise
- Recurrent mood swings, irritability, depression and/or anxiety
- Feeling mentally or physically burnt out from exercise
- Persistent or frequent injuries
- Getting sick often
- Unintended weight loss or gain
- Insomnia or needing more sleep than usual
- Increased or decreased appetite and hunger
When overexercising becomes an obsessive compulsion, that signifies exercise addiction. Exercise addiction is often considered a mental illness within the eating disorder community although it is not yet indicated in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. But people suffering from exercise addiction are not choosing to exercise but instead feel like they have to.
Exercise is no longer a way to honor and respect the body or benefit health. In exercise addiction, working out serves as an unhealthy obligation – it is being used as a maladaptive coping mechanism to deal with emotional trauma.
It often begins with a desire for improved physical fitness but morphs into an uncontrollable addiction. In fact, the same neurotransmitters (dopamine and endorphins) are released after exercise just like with drug use. They produce a “high” feeling (aka the so-called runner’s high) for the exercise addict. However, similar to drug addicts, the exerciser has to work out more and more to trigger the same chemical response.
Moreover, it poses all the same signs as above and is associated with heart, bone, muscle, and nervous system problems. Exercise addicts also exhibit behavior typical of other addicts including obsession over the behavior and engaging in the behavior despite physical harm.
One might also continue engaging in the behavior even though there is a rational desire to stop and do the behavior in secret.
Signs of Exercise Addiction:
- Exercising for excessive amounts of time every day
- Doing multiple workouts in one day
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms (agitation, irritability, etc.) in between workouts
- Choosing exercise over responsibilities or social commitments
- Lying to others about workouts
- Having uncontrollable desires to exercise
- Feeling extremely anxious, irritable, or depressed about missing a workout
- Exercising at odd hours of the day (late at night, middle of the night, etc.)
- Feeling a need to fidget or constantly move when not exercising
- Choosing exercise over relationships, hobbies, and obligations
Treatment for exercise addiction often requires substantial assistance similar to drug or alcohol addiction treatment. Some sufferers enter eating disorder treatment centers while others can overcome the disorder through outpatient treatment.
Nonetheless, conquering exercise addiction is a monumental feat but imperative for health and wellbeing.
How to Rest and Recover Properly
Finding an exercise threshold requires some trial and error, but prioritizing rest and recovery can help ensure one doesn’t go too overboard. For some, active rest days offer enough recovery whereas others might need full rest days, free of regimented exercise.
Everyone can rest and recover properly by doing the following:
- Designate a couple rest or active recovery days per week
- Consume enough fuel, especially protein and carbohydrate
- Treat sore muscles with stretching, foam rolling and/or sports massage treatments
- Drink enough hydrating fluids
- Focus on light movement like walking, recreational sports, and household chores on days off
- Find other healthy ways to cope with stress beyond exercising
- Talk with a therapist, sports psychologist, or another health professional if exercise starts to feel out of control
The Bottom Line on Over-Exercising
The old saying that too much of a good thing rings completely true when it comes to exercise. Over-exercising causes more health harm than benefit and is associated with negative consequences like rebound weight gain, overly sore muscles, and decreased performance.
Nonetheless, everyone will have a different exercise threshold, often determined by trial and error.
When exercise becomes a compulsive exercise, that is defined as exercise addiction, which is a serious health risk that warrants treatment. Preventing exercise addiction starts with proper rest and recovery within a normal exercise routine. If unable to do this, seek professional help as soon as possible.
Exercise certainly offers tremendous mental and physical benefits, but resting is equally as important.
Stubblefield H. Exercise Addiction: Causes, Risk Factors, and Symptoms. Healthline. Updated August 4, 2017. www.healthline.com/health/exercise-addiction.
Vorvick L. Are You Getting Too Much Exercise? MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. Reviewed August 13, 2020. medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000807.htm.