If a little exercise is good, more must be better…Right?
Afraid not. Just like with most things—healthy and unhealthy—more is not always better. No exercise and extreme exercise both don’t yield the good stuff. The sweet spot is in between those extremes, where exercise gives you the most benefits.
But before we get into the negative effects of too much exercise, first let’s discuss the signs of over-exercising:
Overtaxing your body to the point of pain and injury.
Excessive amounts of time spent exercising that pull you away from responsibilities and other people.
Insisting on exercising seven days a week, rarely taking rest days, and experiencing anxiety or mental discomfort on a day when you cannot exercise.
Preoccupation with training for and participation in “extreme” events (e.g. five marathons a year, multiple ultra-triathlons) especially if the training is resulting in physical or psychological damage.
Exercising to compensate for eating. Some people think of exercise as a calorie purge (in the same way vomiting or laxatives may be used). This is often difficult to identify because exercise is viewed as such a virtuous behavior. These people may exercise three or four times a day, exercise after every meal, or have intense workouts both morning and night.
So why is too much exercise bad for you? Here are examples of how over-exercising can negatively impact your mental and physical health:
Compromising your immune system
Regular moderate exercise is an immune booster—this means daily moderate workouts can result in a cumulative immune effect that can help stave off colds and viruses. On the other side, too much exercise at intense levels can make a person more vulnerable to illnesses in the days after the exercise session, especially during cold and flu season. This has been attributed to upticks in stress hormones such as cortisol, which can suppress immune functioning.
So to those marathoners and triathletes out there, be careful about your health. Even though your über-intense workouts may leave you feeling healthier than the rest of us, this may be an illusion. Build in rest days and be careful about exposure in the days after the heaviest workouts and races. In addition, remember exercise may just make you more vulnerable to pesky viruses during cold and flu season.
Numbing yourself from emotions
Exercise may be one of the greatest mindfulness exercises out there, facilitating focus on bodily sensations (sensate focus) that helps us to stay in the moment and clear our heads. Ideally, this results in better cognitive performance and mental focus post-exercise and cumulatively over time. However, exercise (especially overly intense exercise) can also be mentally numbing and used as a way to distract from issues a person does not want to think about, such as heartache, loss, or anger.
In the short term, this can be a fantastic coping mechanism, but when daily intense workouts are the only tool you have to manage these emotions, you may be using exercise to numb yourself, and not actually deal with your feelings.
The best advice is to exercise moderately and watch for signs you may be overdoing it.