Especially for Infobae of The New York Times.
Q: I walk about seven miles a day, spend five to six hours a week doing vigorous conditioning exercise, and about four hours a week doing vigorous resistance training. Is it possible to exercise too much? How many?
You’ve probably been told over and over that exercise is good for your health and well-being, so it’s tempting to assume that more is automatically better. But, like many good things in life, there is a point of diminishing utility, and it is possible to overestimate.
However, how much physical activity is too much will depend on your particular situation.
The first thing to ask yourself if you’re in doubt about how much you’re exercising is, “Why are you exercising?” said Benjamin Levine, professor of internal medicine at Texas Southwestern University Medical Center and director of the Institute for Environmental Medicine and the Exercise at Texas Health Dallas.
If your goal is to improve health and reduce risk set of conditions From diabetes to heart disease, 2.5 to 3 hours of moderate to vigorous exercise a week will give the best results, says Levine. “Once you’ve spent about five hours a week, you’re no longer working out for health, you’re working out for performance.”
And when you’re working out for performance — whether it’s at the gym to get stronger, run a marathon, or improve your tennis game — it may be stressing your body beyond its ability to recover, says Kristen Dieffenbach, an expert sports scientist and director of the Center for Applied Training. and Sports Science at the University of West Virginia. When you exercise, your body responds by getting stronger, faster, and fitter. This increase does not occur during the training itself, but during the recovery period. That’s when your body repairs damage caused by vigorous exercise, such as micro-tears in muscle fibers, and makes adaptations, such as increasing the energy-producing mitochondria in your cells.
As long as your body is able to keep up with the repair work, your training sessions will continue to help you improve your performance, says Dieffenbach. But when the stress of training builds up beyond your ability to recover, you’ve entered the fatigue zone, which is known in the sports community. like overtraining.
What makes things difficult is the blurring of the line between hard training and overtraining. There’s no number or formula that can tell you it’s too much, says Dieffenbach. Instead, what matters is how your body responds to the exercise you do. Dieffenbach suggests thinking about exercise and the necessary physical and emotional resources such as asking for money in the bank. You only have a limited amount in your budget, and if you try to spend more, you will end up exhausted or hurt, and possibly in a bad mood.
Over time, your exercise budget may change. As you age, your body needs more time to recover, so it may be necessary to count more hours of rest between strenuous workouts. It is also limited by other things going on in your life. Spending long hours at work or traveling or dealing with stressful situations at home can drain a portion of your energy budget and decrease your ability to recover from exercise, says Dieffenbach. A 2016 study of 101 college football players, for example, found the risk of injury nearly doubled during times of academic stress (such as midterms and final week).
The most reliable signs that you’re exercising too much come from your subjective feelings of well-being, says Dieffenbach. If you’re suddenly tired all the time, or if an exercise that once seemed easy seems difficult, or your performance suddenly declines (e.g. if your running time slows down without explanation, or your daily walk is longer than usual) it may be time to back off and rest, said Dieffenbach. Other classic signs of overtraining include difficulty sleeping, feeling tired, and being unable to recover from minor colds and other respiratory infections. “Sometimes you have to step back to move forward,” says Dieffenbach.
If you start to force yourself to do an exercise you previously enjoyed or feel guilty about not exercising enough, that’s another sign that you’re overdoing it. This is especially true if the sensation lasts more than a few days, says Dieffenbach. (Of course, it can also be a sign of other health problems, such as depression, so you should be aware of that too.)
On the other hand, if you find that your love of sports is turning into a crazy obsession, that too deserves attention, says Szabó Attila, a health psychologist who studies exercise addiction at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest. Sports addiction can occur when a person feels compelled to do physical activity despite pain or injury. One of Attila’s studios of 2019 found that no specific number of hours a week could be correlated with exercise addiction, but “it becomes problematic when it damages other areas of life,” he says. If you have put practice above your relationship, work and others, added Attila, it’s a sign that it’s overdone.
One of Attila’s colleagues, Mark Griffiths, a psychologist at Nottingham Trent University in England, has developed six criteria for use during exercise addiction monitoring by a healthcare specialist:
1. Sport is the most important thing in my life.
2. Conflicts arise with my family or my partner because of the many sports I do.
3. I use exercise as a way to change my mood (eg to run away, get high, etc.).
4. Over time I have increased the amount of exercise I do in a day.
5. If I have to skip practice I feel irritable and moody.
6. If I reduce the amount of exercise I do and then start over, I always end up exercising as often as before.
To qualify as an addiction, a person must meet all six criteria, and that’s very rare, Griffiths said. But a lot of people exhibit problematic exercise patterns, and it doesn’t really rise to the level of addiction, he adds. For example, someone who goes to work and has a normal activity, but then comes home and neglects his family to go to the gym to exercise, that’s still a problem.
Which leads us to finally answer our question: yes, it is possible to exercise too much. And you’ll know it when it affects your body, makes you sick or injured, or when it negatively impacts the rest of your life. When it stops making you feel good and enriches your life, it’s time to cut back.
Christie Aschwanden is a writer living in western Colorado and author of Good to Go: What the Athletes in All of Us Can Learn from the Weird Science of Recovery.