Sometimes a good thing can go bad, and too much exercise is no different. The problems associated with over-exercise, or overtraining, range from mild discomfort to severe, sometimes life-altering physical damage. While most people don't experience overtraining very often, if you're regularly working out hard and you start experiencing symptoms associated with overtraining, back off and allow your body to get some much-needed rest.
Symptoms of Overtraining
Individuals who experience overtraining typically fall into one of three categories:
- They're just starting an exercise program
- They're competitive athletes who exercise at a high intensity several hours a day
- They're regular exercisers who decide to bump up or change their workout significantly.
If you fall into one of these three categories, watch for the following symptoms of overtraining:
- Decreased performance - You're just not able to go as long and as hard or play as well as you have in the recent past.
- Irritability and moodiness - When your body is tired, your hormones can get out of whack, causing unusual moodiness or agitation.
- Nagging aches and pains - If your knee just won't stop aching or your back muscles never seem to loosen up, it may be time for a rest.
- Insomnia/restlessness - Overtraining can throw off your sleep cycle and prevent you from resting or relaxing...which then prevents your body from repairing itself.
- Loss of appetite - Exhaustion that accompanies overtraining can stimulate hormones that suppress appetite; if you're eating less, chances are your body isn't receiving the nutrients it needs to repair itself.
- Elevated heart rate - Check your heart rate several hours after exercise; if it never seems to drop to the expected resting level, it's probably chronically overworked.
- More frequent infections - If you can't seem to rid yourself of a nagging cough, or you pick up every cold bug that gets passed around, it could be due to a suppressed immune system cause by too much exercise.
- Musculoskeletal injuries - When your body is tired and worn out, your bones and joints are more prone to injuries like stress fractures, strains and sprains.
- Menstrual disturbances - Women who exercise excessively may experience alterations in sex hormones that affect their periods.
When Bad Goes to Worse
It's one thing to be chronically fatigued and experiencing aches and pains. In that circumstance, you can take a week or two off from exercise, or simply back off your exercise schedule and monitor your condition until your resting heart rate returns to normal and your other symptoms seem to have improved. It's quite another thing to experience menstrual disturbances. Here's why:
Young, active women sometimes get into a cycle referred to as the Female Athlete Triad. It's a three-pronged condition including disordered eating, amenorrhea (or menstrual dysfunction), and bone loss that leads to stress fractures. If these three factors appear together, there's a chance that the young woman could experience bone loss that could lead to early osteoporosis, sometimes seen in women still in their 20s. Women have to build their bone supplies up in their teens and 20s to help prevent bone loss later in life, so suffering bone loss at such an early age can cause life-long problems. Other signs of the female athlete triad include: persistently excessive exercise, low calorie intake, very low body fat percentage and body dissatisfaction.
If you think you or someone you know could be experiencing the Female Athlete Triad, talk to your doctor and the athlete's coaches and trainers. Women suffering from this disorder often don't want to change their habits for fear that their performance will suffer or they'll gain weight. It usually takes an intervention from multiple sources for changes to take place.
Sometimes the negative effects of too much exercise don't arise so much from physical symptoms as they do from mental symptoms. As with the female athlete triad, sometimes a person begins believing that they're obligated to exercise. This obligation becomes an obsession that can eventually begin taking over the person's life. If you find yourself skipping out on activities or events you used to enjoy, or if you push yourself to exercise through an injury, you may want to consider the fact that you could be a compulsive exerciser. If you don't learn to manage your compulsion, it could lead to overuse syndrome and severe bone and joint injuries down the line.
The fact is, exercise is a good thing. It can build your bones and muscles, keep your heart healthy and help ward off other chronic diseases, but moderation is still the key. Aim to get between 150 and 300 minutes of exercise each week, and always allow yourself to rest if you're feeling overtrained.