Is it possible to exercise too much?

Q: I walk about seven miles a day, spend five to six hours a week doing vigorous conditioning exercises, and about four hours a week doing heavy resistance training. Is it possible to exercise too much? How much is too much?

You’ve probably been told countless times that exercise is good for your health and fitness, so it’s tempting to assume that more is automatically better.

But, as with so many good things in life, there comes a point of diminishing utility, and it is possible to exaggerate.

However, exactly how much physical activity is too much will depend on your particular situation.

How can you tell if you are exaggerating?  (Aileen Son for The New York Times)

How can you tell if you are exaggerating? (Aileen Son for The New York Times)

The first thing you should ask yourself if you have doubts about how much you are exercising is:

“Why are you exercising?” Said Benjamin Levine, professor of internal medicine at Texas Southwestern University Medical Center and director of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at Texas Health Dallas.

If your goal is to improve your health and reduce your risk for a number of conditions ranging from diabetes to heart disease, then 2.5 to 3 hours of moderate to vigorous exercise per week will do the most good, Levine said. .

“Once you spend approximately five hours a week, you no longer exercise for health, you exercise for performance”.

And when you exercise for performance – whether it’s at the gym to get stronger, run a marathon, or improve your tennis game – it’s possible to stress your body beyond its ability to recover, said Kristen Dieffenbach, an expert exercise scientist. and director of the Center for Applied Training and Sports Sciences at West Virginia University.

When you exercise, your body responds by becoming stronger, faster, and fitter.

These improvements do not happen during the training itself, but during the recovery period.

It’s when your body repairs the damage caused by strenuous exercise, such as micro-tears in muscle fibers, and makes adaptations, such as increasing the energy-producing mitochondria in your cells.

As long as your body is able to keep up with the repair work, your exercise sessions will continue to help you improve your performance, Dieffenbach said.

But when the stress of training builds up beyond your ability to recover, you’ve entered the depletion zone, known in the sports community as overtraining.

What makes things difficult is the blurred line between hard training and overtraining.

There is no number or formula that can tell you that it is too much, Dieffenbach said.

Instead, what matters is how your body responds to the exercise you are doing.

Dieffenbach suggested thinking about the exercise and physical and emotional resources it requires like asking for money at a bank.

You only have a limited amount in your budget, and if you try to overspend, you will end up exhausted or injured, and probably in a bad mood.

Over time, your exercise budget can change.

As you age, your body requires more time to recover, so it may be necessary to calculate more hours of rest between strenuous workouts.

It is also limited by other things that happen in your life.

Spending long hours at work or traveling or dealing with stressful situations at home can eat up part of your energy budget and lower your ability to recover from exercise, Dieffenbach said.

A 2016 study of 101 college football players, for example, found that their risk of injury casi doubled in times of academic tension (such as midterms and finals week).

The most reliable signs that you’re exercising too much come from your subjective feelings of well-being, Dieffenbach said.

If you are suddenly tired all the time, or if workouts that used to seem easy feel difficult, or your performance has unexpectedly decreased (for example if your running times are slowing down without explanation, or your daily walk is taking longer than usual) It might be time to back down and rest, Dieffenbach said.

Other classic signs of overtraining include trouble sleeping, feeling exhausted, and not being able to recover from minor colds and other respiratory infections.

“Sometimes you have to back to move on, “Dieffenbach said.

If you find that you start to have to force yourself into workouts that you previously enjoyed or feel guilty about not getting enough exercise, those are other clues that you’ve overdone yourself.

This is particularly true if the sensations last for more than a few days, Dieffenbach said.

Of course, they can also be signs of other health problems, like depression, so you also have to take that into account.

On the other hand, if you find that your love of exercise is turning into an insane obsession, that too deserves attention, said Szabó Attila, a health psychologist who studies exercise addiction at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest.

An exercise addiction can occur when someone feels compelled to engage in physical activity even despite pain or injury.

One of Attila’s 2019 studies found that there is no specific number of hours a week that could be correlated with an exercise addiction, but that “it becomes problematic when it damages other areas of life,” he said.

If you’ve put exercise above your relationships, work, and everything else, Attila added, that’s a sign that it has become too much.

One of Attila’s colleagues, Mark Griffiths, a psychologist at Nottingham Trent University in the UK, has developed six criteria to be used during exercise addiction monitoring by health specialists:

1. Exercise is the most important thing in my life.

2. Conflicts have arisen with my family or my partner due to the amount of exercise I do.

3. I use exercise as a way to change my mood (for example to escape, experience a high, etc.).

4. Over time I have increased the amount of exercise I do in a day.

5. If I have to skip a workout I feel irritable and moody.

6. If I reduce the amount of exercise I do and then start over, I always end up exercising as often as before.

To qualify as an addiction, a person would have to meet all six criteria, and that’s very rare, Griffiths said.

But many people exhibit problematic exercise patterns, and that doesn’t exactly rise to the level of an addiction, he added.

For example, someone who goes to work and functions normally, but then comes home and neglects his family to go to the gym to exercise, that is still a problem.

Which brings us to finally answer our question: yes, it is possible to exercise too much.

And you will know it when it affects your body, makes you sick or injured, or when it negatively affects the rest of your life.

When it stops making you feel good and enriching your life, it’s time to cut back.

Christie Aschwanden is a writer living in western Colorado and the author of Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery.

c. 2022 The New York Times Company

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