Intense exercise by itself is not problematic and can have a slew of health benefits, such as desired weight loss, improved mood, and cardiovascular conditioning, to mention just a few. However, if working out is a good thing, can you exercise too much? And how much is too much exercise?
How Much Exercise Is Too Much?
Most of the existing advice on exercise is related to curbing a sedentary lifestyle, like the CDC’s recommendation that adults should get at least two and a half hours of exercise a week. However, there are few guidelines for the upper limits of exercise.
There are several ways to tell if you’re exercising too much or too hard. Here’s a partial list of ways to know if you’re becoming an exercise addict (and yes, that’s a thing):
- You start sneaking in additional exercise sessions.
- Your workout schedule dictates your life, and you get angry if you miss a session.
- You continue to lose weight when you don’t have much body fat.
- You exercise expressly to counter calories consumed (exercise bulimia).
- As a woman, you stop menstruating (known as amenorrhea).
- Your immune system is lacking, resulting in frequent colds or other illnesses.
Good Reasons to Keep a Check on Excessive Exercise
For women, amenorrhea from overexercising can have long-term effects. Some adverse health consequences from prolonged exercise-induced amenorrhea are caused by an estrogen deficiency. According to USCFertility.org, subsequent health risks can include osteoporosis (potentially leading to fractures of the hip, spine, etc.) and ongoing infertility problems. Women are also warned of atrophy of female organs like the vagina and breasts and an increased risk of heart attack as they get older.
Men are not immune to letting strenuous exercise become excessive. Obsessively getting too much exercise can lead to not just injuries and exhaustion but also depression and even suicide.
Men can also be at risk for weakened bones from over-exercising. Cortisol, a hormone produced during periods of physical stress such as a 2-hour workout, interferes with bone-building. So, exercise addicts end up with a higher risk of fractures, as well as osteoporosis and arthritis in later life.
Both Genders Are at Health Risks From Extreme Over Exercise
US News cites a study of extreme exercisers (like lifelong endurance runners) that showed high rates of myocardial fibrosis (increased collagenous scar tissue in the heart). This type of pathological cardiac remodeling can lead to an irregular heartbeat, heart failure, and even death.
Over-exercising can cause you to get injuries, and you may be tempted to continue working out despite pain.
If you indulge in excessive exercise, it’s important to take steps to curb the behavior. You can take some solace in knowing that you are in good company. Psychologist and University of Hawaii professor emeritus Dr. Alayna Yates says the over-exercisers she’s studied have been mostly high-performing, high-achieving individuals, with an average of 18-years of education.
Getting Help for an Inner Need for Too Much Exercise
By now, you know it is possible for an individual to exercise too much. Whether it’s for yourself or a loved one, be patient, and know both signs and treatment options. The problem may not be apparent because if someone is a professional athlete or competitive bodybuilder, it can be hard to distinguish when a situation merits intervention of some sort.
For these individuals, the answer to how much working out is too much may differ from most of the population. If an athlete is waking at extremely early hours not shared with a trainer or coach, that’s a sign. Insisting an injury isn’t major when it impairs performance is another. And severe relationship issues are another key sign that the individual may need to scale back.
Treatments for exercise addiction can vary. They often include counseling and behavior modification therapy, as well as addressing food issues. An astute counselor may encourage the exercise-obsessive person to switch from solitary running and workouts to more socially oriented forms of exercise. Group yoga and cycling can facilitate engagement as long as they don’t become overly competitive.
Other Resources That May Help:
Informational websites, including:
The Truth About Exercise Addiction: Understanding the Dark Side of Thinspiration, by Katherine Schreiber and Heather A. Hausenblas.
If you think you might have exercise bulimia, you may want to read Diary of an Exercise Addict by Peach Friedman.
Therapy, including virtual therapy—often for no or little cost. Resources are available through various apps or your health insurance’s referral. Try the volunteers on sites like 7Cups or a peer forum like Quora.
Common Sense Tips for Avoiding Working Out Too Much
As is almost always the case with your health, the best intervention is usually prevention. If you know the risks of becoming an extreme exerciser before you begin a training regime, you can likely learn to manage a proper exercise routine without ever going overboard.
Here are our commonsense guidelines and a few uncommon bits of advice you might not hear elsewhere:
- Know if you’re an overachiever type and be aware that you can transfer this obsessive-compulsive behavior to fitness if you’ve had an eating disorder.
- Work with a trainer or a partner for your exercise goals.
- Define success in realistic, measurable, and written terms in advance of starting a fitness journey.
- Test whether you might be an exercise addict by seeing if you can go “cold turkey” from exercising for several days at a time.
- Become aware of the health risks of a lifestyle of exercise addiction and the diverse forms it can take.
- Learn about related problems related to an obsession with fitness that can arise, such as muscle dysmorphia and over-reliance on supplements or performance and endurance enhancers.
- Try channeling some of your self-perfection tendencies into acquiring a new skill or a high-energy hobby. You might try social dancing, gardening, or sailing, for example.