When it comes to fitness goals, we’re determined to go gung-ho right out of the gate. Spending more hours at the gym, pumping out higher reps, logging more miles on our runs, and doubling up on group classes doesn’t seem like the exception any more, but the norm. But how much exercise is too much? Overtraining might seem like an urban legend made up by gym-phobes…but the consequences are very, very real.
Chris Kresser is a world-renown leader in the fields of ancestral health, Paleo nutrition, and functional and integrative medicine. His website has been named one of the top 25 natural health sites in the world, and Chris himself touted as one of the top 100 most influential personalities in fitness and wellness. His best-selling book The Paleo Cure is a must for the Crossfit-obsessed and workout newbie alike – he’s a pro on addressing the underlying causes of health conditions, including the effects that extreme exercising can have on the body.
If you’re wondering if your workout habits are doing you more harm than good, read up on Chris’s expert insight – then click over to his blog and find out how to get your high intensity workout on without going over the edge…
Exercise is a major component of a healthy lifestyle, and the benefits of regular physical activity are well established. When adopting a Paleo lifestyle, modifying your fitness routine to include more high intensity exercise can bring great benefits to energy, body composition, and overall fitness.
However, there are many people who take their physique and physical fitness to an extreme level, particularly in the Paleo community. Certain styles of exercise take the participant to a state of physical exhaustion on a regular basis, which may do more harm than good.
While a consistent, high intensity workout routine may provide some benefits for those people looking to lose body fat and increase their strength and fitness, there is a fine line between training hard and overtraining. While running fast and lifting heavy may be major components of an active Paleo lifestyle, engaging in these physically demanding activities too regularly or too intensely can contribute to many different symptoms of overtraining.
Overtraining goes beyond just excessive “chronic cardio” or too many hours spent at the gym. Certain high-intensity exercise routines may push the body’s stress response too far, leading to a cascade of biochemical responses that can cause serious damage to one’s health in both the short and long term.
While short, intense workouts can be great for inducing fat loss, increasing aerobic capacity, and reducing risk for cardiovascular disease, excessively intense exercise can cause a variety of health problems, especially for those dealing with other concurrent stressors such as autoimmune disease, gut dysbiosis, or adrenal fatigue.
Overtraining has been shown to affect blood levels of important neurotransmitters such as glutamine, dopamine and 5-HTP, which can lead to feelings of depression and chronic fatigue. The stress caused by intense, excessive exercise can negatively affect the hypothalamic-pituitary axis, possibly causing conditions such as hypothyroidism. Hypothyroidism is known to cause depression, weight gain, and digestive disfunction along with a variety of other symptoms. As we know, high stress in general can cause symptoms of hypothyroidism, and the stress caused by excessive, intense exercise is no exception.
Another major effect that extreme exercise has on our bodies is an immediate increase in cortisol, the hormone that is released when the body is under stress. Heavy-resistance exercises are found to stimulate markedly acute cortisol responses, similar to those responses found in marathon running. Chronically high levels of cortisol can increase your risk for a variety of health issues, such as sleep disturbances, digestive issues, depression, weight gain, and memory impairment. Excess cortisol also encourages fat gain, particularly around the abdomen.
When a goal of exercise is to lose weight or improve energy, overtraining can clearly be a major barrier to achieving those goals.
Overtraining can also have harmful effects on the immune system. Research has shown that the cellular damage that occurs during overtraining can lead to nonspecific, general activation of the immune system, including changes in natural killer cell activity and the increased activation of peripheral blood lymphocytes. This hyperactivity of the immune system following intense overtraining can possibly even contribute to the development of autoimmune conditions.
This type of nonspecific immune response is associated with symptoms such as chronic fatigue, weight loss, decreased appetite, and sleep changes. Altered immune status is also known to affect the hypothalamic-pituitary axis, and may be responsible for the hypothalamic-pituitary dysfunction and hypothyroidism known to occur in overtrained athletes.
Mark Sisson talks about the different signs of overtraining, which may be more common in endurance training but is nonetheless possible in high intensity training as well. Feeling ill or rundown, losing muscle mass, gaining fat, and constant exhaustion can all be signs of excessive exercise of any type. Not only is this counterproductive to most people’s fitness and health goals, but it is also a sign of sickness. In the path to better health, any activity that makes you more fatigued and more prone to infection is definitely something to be avoided.
Want to keep your goals intact while preventing overtraining? Click over to Chris Kresser’s blog to learn the best techniques to avoid overtraining while still enjoying high intensity exercise!
Gah, I wish people talked more about this. I had to take nearly a whole YEAR off from moderate-intense exercise after overexercising. I was doing 3 hours of HIIT a week (which doesn’t sound like much compared to some crazy Crossfitters) and my body started to breakdown. Couldn’t get through workouts anymore, resting heart rate increased as well as my blood pressure, my cortisol was literally off the charts and led to daily panic attacks for months, which left me unable to work or even leave the house most days. I asked my doctor what the problem could be, he shrugged and prescribed me Xanax to help my panic attacks. And sadly my trainer couldn’t provide any insight either. Loads of research is coming out saying that the fitter you get, the less you actually need to subject your body to such strenuous workouts–recovery takes precedence.