What You Should Know About Overtraining

What You Should Know About Overtraining

Can exercise become too much of a good thing? Here’s what the experts have to say.

The benefits of being active and of getting aerobic and strength-building exercise are as good for you as having LeBron James on your team in the NBA! And the dangers of being sedentary, whether you’re a couch potato or a desk-bound workaholic are far-reaching.

A recent study of sedentary lifestyles by Cleveland Clinic doctors Wale Jaber and Steve Nissen found that being unfit (not exercising at all) can be worse for your overall health “than being hypertensive, being diabetic or being a current smoker.” And Dr. Mike’s RealAge data have shown the dangers since 1998.

Can you get too much of a good thing?
Yes you can! Exercising excessively or overtraining can tax your immune and gastrointestinal system, heart, kidneys and of course joints and muscle tissue, to the point of causing disease and damage—not preventing it.

Exercise-induced gastrointestinal syndrome can cause both acute and chronic gut issues by triggering leaky gut. That allows endotoxins to pass from your bowels into your bloodstream. You end up with cramping, nausea, malabsorption of nutrients and problems with bowel movements.

Researchers found that working out for more than two hours at more than 60 percent of your capacity seems to trigger the syndrome in folks, regardless of how fit they are. The good news—most of the time, scaling back helps restore gut integrity.

Cardiotoxic problems also happen if you habitually push yourself too hard. They can cause structural damage and functional changes to the heart. One study published in the European Heart Journal measured the heart rhythms of over 52,000 competitive cross-country skiers over 10 years. Researchers found the risk of arrhythmia increased with every race and it was up to 30 percent higher for those who competed for five years straight. The fastest racers were at the highest risk for arrhythmia. Arrhythmia can lead to everything from fainting to heart attack and stroke.

Overtraining can damage your kidneys. A condition called rhabdomyolysis occurs when skeletal muscle tissue breaks down and the damaged cells enter the bloodstream, disrupting kidney function. You end up with dehydration, muscle pain, weakness and swelling of affected muscles and dark-colored urine. You don’t have to be an ultra-marathoner to have it happen. In 2011, the NCAA reported that 13 members of the U of Iowa football team developed the condition after being led through a particularly grueling workout.

Are you overtraining?
Running USA reported that in 2014 there were over 19 million finishers in US endurance events, such as marathons, tris and century bike rides, and the numbers increase every year. Clearly, there’s a good bit of overtraining going on.

Your body will let you know if you’re overdoing it. Here are two sure signs:

  • You’re not sleeping well, are lethargic and irritable during the day.
  • Your workouts are delivering diminishing returns. In other words, you’re getting slower and don’t feel like working out.

If that’s you, stop training, see your doc and have your gastrointestinal system, heart and kidneys checked out.

Becoming a smart—and healthy—exerciser
After you’ve recovered, we suggest that you limit your workouts to 120 minutes four days a week or 60 minutes a day, five days. Make sure you stay well-hydrated, avoid extreme temperatures, stop when you’re tired and take breaks during your routines.

Also, try interval training while walking, jogging, biking or swimming. And keep it fun by trying various sports, such as tennis, basketball, soccer, badminton or Dr. Mike’s favorite, squash. And then there’s the time-honored, heart-healthy, 10,000 steps at a moderate pace and 40 jumps every day, plus 30 minutes a week of resistance training. For an extra resource to ensure you’re getting the right amount of exercise, check out the Sharecare app for iOS and Android.

If you enjoy well-regulated exercise, you’ll gain cardiorespiratory fitness, reduce your risk for coronary artery disease, hypertension and stroke (as well as some cancers, type 2 diabetes and cognitive decline). Remember, exercise is a pleasure, not a punishment, so enjoy!

Medically reviewed in December 2019.

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