I was recently given a series of questions by a freelance reporter in her search for sources regarding exercise and determining whether you’re doing too much. The questions were kind of vague and open to interpretation, so I kind of took it the direction I thought was most appropriate. But I think this can be a very serious question for someone just starting out or starting back up after a long break from exercise. Even though the intentions are good and you are super motivated to get back in shape, it may be doing more harm than good.
So take a look at my responses and utilize the information to make smart, beneficial decisions regarding your exercise regimen.
The big question….how much is too much when it comes to exercise frequency or duration? And the answer? Well it depends….on a lot. Here are some guidelines to help navigate on your own.
1. Define what it means for someone to over exercise/push yourself too hard? Is this subjective?
First, let’s define what too hard is and the type of exercise in question. When it comes to exercise are you talking about aerobic or anaerobic exercise? Because both of those will have different measures, both objective and subjective.
Aerobic exercise has some viable objective measures such as heart rate and VO2max. Usually there are specific percentages of the maximum measure that an individual will work at to elicit a desired training effect or adaptation. Maybe if an individual goes above those measures for too long, too fast, or too high, then they will be exercising too hard?
Anaerobic exercise, which I will refer to as resistance training, has other objective measures that can be used. They include max strength or force output. This is usually measured by a 1 rep max, which will determine how much resistance can be used at one time for that specific exercise. A percentage is often used for a desired training adaptation, but if an individual uses too much or goes too long, then they may be pushing themselves too hard.
I would also agree that there are useful subjective measures that can determine if someone is exercising too hard. This includes what is commonly known as the Rate of Perceived Exertion scale or RPE scale. The scale allows the individual to rate the intensity of the exercise on a scale (1-10), which will give the practitioner or the individual an idea of how hard/intense the exercise is at that current point in time. By all means, not fool proof, but good data nonetheless.
2. How can someone tell the difference between moments when they should push through the pain, and when your body is telling you it's time to take a break?
I would say that as general advice and also advice I give my clients is that there should never be pain during exercise. That ‘no pain, no gain’ motto is really dumb and a bunch of bs. And myself, as a fitness professional, know that my first duty is to not harm my clients, so I would never push them to a level of pain. And if they are experiencing joint pain, I would recommend they go and see a specialist (ortho, PT, etc.)
Now if you’re referring to ‘pain’ as muscular fatigue during exercise (either aerobic or anaerobic), then that is something completely different. That is where the muscles/tissue are working to the point of fatigue, which will cause the nervous system to respond accordingly (muscle burning sensation). That is more often then not ‘normal’ and should be expected. Now, it truly depends at where the individual is at with their current fitness level on whether they should even get to that point. If it’s a beginner or someone who hasn’t exercised in years, then it isn’t really necessary starting out and I would probably advise against getting to that point, let alone pushing past it. Now for a well trained individual that has been exercising for 1+ years, then by all means get to the point. But it should be in the muscle belly and a focused contraction from the muscle, not just mindlessly going through random stuff to make it harder. And never joint pain.
If there is anything funky in the joints or if that level of intensity is happening often without adequate recovery, then the body may start to break down. Fatigue, not feeling well, constant aches or soreness, foggy headed, and other symptoms may be a sign of overtraining and rest should happen immediately.
3. Everyone has their limits. Is challenging them a sign that your workout might be too intense? What's a tell-tale sign that the routine you have for yourself goes beyond your skill set/capabilities?
I would say it’s ok to try something new or push yourself, but to use common sense and be smart about it. If that starts to become the norm, then your body may react negatively. Remember, exercise is supposed to benefit you and prevent a lot of negative things from happening (disease, chronic conditions, etc.), but as with anything, too much of a good thing can cause harm or negatively affect you. Even too much water can kill you…
Also, going back to the last bullet in question 2 will answer the 2nd part of this question. Overtraining is a real thing and if you have 1 or more of the symptoms, then it’s best to rest.
4. If your workout is too intense, how will it reflect in your physical body, and mental stability? Does your mood change, your appetite, your confidence, your stamina, etc.?
The body is very complex and one system affects every other system, whether we like it or not. This means that if we’re taking a toll on our muscular system, cardiovascular system, and pulmonary system, that the other systems may be feeling those same effects. This includes the nervous system, which will affect mood, confidence, and many other things; the endocrine system, which may lead to hormone imbalances and also affect some physical/mental states; your digestive system, which will affect appetite and how well your body is able to absorb nutrients, which in turn may affect every other system in the body; and also your immune system, which could lead to a decreased ability to fight off viruses and you may get sick a lot quicker. So as you can see, too much intensity or too much exercise can affect a lot of things.
5. In the context of "everything in moderation," are there workouts you just shouldn't do every day, or multiple times a week? Give some examples and explain why performing these types of workouts x amount of times per week might be too intense for your body.
As a general guideline, there should be at least 48 hours rest in between resistance training bouts for a particular muscle or group of muscles. Now, as always, there are exceptions to the rule. How much is being done (sets, reps, time, rest, etc.)? At what intensity (easy/hard)? Let’s say a client came in and we did some low level isometrics for a particular area, but went really heavy/intense on another. I would probably be ok with doing some more of those isometrics the next day (if they felt ok of course), but would recommend resting the intense resistance training. Recovery is just as important as the workout. So for a lot of these ‘HIIT’ or interval style classes, I would recommend doing them 1-3 days per week, with at least a days rest in between or something that promotes active recovery (yoga, light walking, any light cardio really, etc.). If you’re doing those every week because you just signed up for their ‘unlimited package’, be very cautious and pay attention to your body. You might be at a high risk of injury, both acute and chronic.
6. How is your form affected when your workouts are too intense?
This will depend highly on the individual and their skill set. I’m sure a pro athlete does very well under high stress/high intense workouts, but a beginning mom of 3 might have a tough time. So if you’re just starting out, I would recommend to progress yourself appropriately. Learn how your body moves and pay attention/be mindful. Once you start getting better at moving, then start bumping up the intensity, but not to the point of where you’re mindlessly moving. Again, that puts you at a higher risk of injury with minimal upside.
7. Can working out too hard and too much affect your immune system?
As I sort of touched on in question 4, working out too hard/too much most certainly can affect your immune system. Like I stated, the body is made of many systems that are all interdependent on each other. So even if it’s not a direct effect, too intense of exercise can have a heavy influence on the immune system.
Pretty intriguing questions and something that I think a lot of us struggle with when figuring out how much exercise to do….here are the main takeaways.
Don’t exceed your current tolerance levels.
Pay attention to your body. Never push through pain (joint pain specifically) and don’t overdo you’re training. Overtraining is very real and if you’re experiencing symptoms (persistent muscle soreness, elevated resting heart rate, increased susceptibility to infections, increased incidence of injuries, irritability, depression, etc.) then see a medical professional or rest!
Use different measures and data points to track what your body can tolerate
Now don’t get me wrong, if you want to see progress, you WILL have to challenge yourself. Bullet 1 is eluding to doing wayyyyy too much. If you’re doing just enough to push yourself past ‘equilibrium’, then you’re body will progress appropriately. But how do you know? Like I stated in question 1, there are both objective (heart rate, VO2submax, HRV, etc.) and subjective (RPE, self recording, etc.) to help determine data points. This will give you the info necessary to know if you’re doing too little, just enough, or too much.
Don’t let this stop you from exercising
Exercise truly is a medicine! And as such, you must get the appropriate ‘dosage’. Once you have that figured out, or at least in the ballpark, exercise and exercise often! You shouldn’t be afraid to exercise because of the risk of doing too much (and that wasn’t my intention with this article)…Think of all the other ‘risky’ things you do on a daily basis (driving a car, chopping vegetables, texting while walking/crossing road, etc.). Silly, but makes a point nonetheless. You’re smart, so just make sure you’re paying attention to all of the variables and you should be just fine.
Follow general guidelines as starting point and adjust as needed
ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine) currently recommends:
Adults should move more and sit less throughout the day. Some physical activity is better than none. Adults who sit less and do any amount of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity gain some health benefits.
For substantial health benefits, adults should do at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) to 300 minutes (5 hours) a week of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) to 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. Preferably, aerobic activity should be spread throughout the week.
Additional health benefits are gained by engaging in physical activity beyond the equivalent of 300 minutes (5 hours) of moderate-intensity physical activity a week.
Adults should also do muscle-strengthening activities of moderate or greater intensity and that involve all major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week, as these activities provide additional health benefits.
If you’re lost or this seems pretty overwhelming, feel free to reach out. Put your exercise regimen in the hands of a trusted professional and it will be one less thing you have to think about. Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will help guide you to feeling and moving better for the long term. And I’ll know exactly how much exercise you should be doing. Happy exercising!