Whether you’re just starting a training program or have been a fitness fanatic for years, you’ve probably experienced an “exercise high,” the feeling of exhilaration a lot of people experience during or after exercise. It’s brought on by the release of hormones called endorphins that serve as natural pain relievers in the brain. It’s those same endorphins that can make exercise feel addictive, sometimes making it difficult to take a much-needed break.
Exercise activates the pleasure centers in the brain by releasing dopamine, a neurotransmitter. When experiencing an endorphin high, also called runner’s high, the intense exercise activates the endorphins, which signal the release of dopamine. Yes, repeated activation of dopamine has some risk of addiction, but that’s not to suggest exercise isn’t good for you. In addition to its long list of health benefits, exercise can also serve as a natural anti-depressant. But as with most things, too much of a good thing can be bad, so it’s important to recognize if you may be over-exercising, the risks of doing so and when to take a day off.
Too much exercise can work against itself to increase body fat and decrease strength, not to mention it increases the risk of illness and injury. It’s difficult to quantify how much exercise is too much, but your body will send you some sure signs you may be overdoing it.
Overexercise: Warning Signs
Burnout and exhaustion: If you’re feeling frustration, disinterest or a lack of motivation in your workout, paired with decreased performance and drained energy, it’s a good sign you may be doing too much. This happens both with endurance sports and those that require extreme power like weight lifting or professional or competitive sports.
Irritability and mood swings: Anxiety, irritability and an inability to focus are all signs that you may need to take a break from exercise. Physical stress on the body behaves like mental and emotional stress.
Insomnia: Restlessness or inability to sleep, even after a recovery period and despite being fatigued during the day, is another sure sign of overtraining.
Illness and injury: If you frequently get sick or find yourself consistently nursing an injury, it’s time to back off. Without enough recovery time, exercise can break down the immune system making you more susceptible to colds and flu. Likewise, constant strain on muscles, joints and tendons can cause overuse injuries.
Soreness: If your body is consistently sore for days at a time, your legs and arms feel heavy, and your resting heart rate is higher than usual, it’s time for a rest. All are good indications of too much stress on the body.
In addition to the above warning signs, there are several more serious medical concerns. Women who skip their menstrual cycles should explore whether it’s a result of overtraining. Similarly, overexercising can cause hormonal imbalance, which can increase the production of the stress hormone, cortisol. Increased cortisol decreases testosterone levels and lowers immune function. Regardless of having lower mortality rates, endurance athletes are at risk of myocardial fibrosis, a thickening or stiffening of the heart valves associated with endurance training. Even scarier: Myocardial fibrosis is associated with heart failure.
How to Take a Rest Day
After any intense workout, the body needs time to recover. Some of the best ways to do so include taking a day or two off; doing a lighter, less intense workout, also known as active recovery; eating nutritious food that includes lean proteins, some fruit, whole grains and plenty of vegetables; and getting regular, consistent sleep during which time your body repairs muscle.
If you’ve experienced any of the signs that you’re overworking in the gym, take the cue from your body and give it a day off.
Brian Maher is a personal trainer in Center City Philadelphia who specializes in weight loss and nutritional counseling. He is the owner of Philly Personal Training, a company offering convenient in-home personal training packages to busy individuals looking to improve their fitness levels. To learn more about Brian and his services, visit his website or follow him on Facebook at Philly Personal Training. Read all of Brian’s posts for Be Well Philly here.