Over-Exercising: Signs of and How to Avoid It

Over-exercising or exercising too intensively can impair performance, damage health and increase the likelihood of injury. An individual should be able to identify signals from her body that indicate she is over-exercising. An approach to exercise that aims to avoid the occurrence of over-exercise includes allowing the body time to recover between workouts and varying the type of activity in a training programme.

Factors such as age, fitness level (body fitness) and overall health come into play when identifying whether an individual is over-exercising. The first step in avoiding over-exercise is to recognize the signs; these may include, for example, tiredness and a susceptibility to infection. The second step involves taking appropriate action by building in adequate rest periods between exercise sessions and devising a cross-training programme, both to avoid overuse injuries and to benefit general health.

DEFINING OVER-EXERCISE

What constitutes over-exercise depends on the level of fitness, age and overall health of the individual. For example, a 20-minute jog once a day may be easy for a young athlete but too demanding for a 40-year-old man who has not exercised for some years. Stamina, speed and endurance decline naturally with age, particularly if individuals have a sedentary lifestyle. The choice of exercise activities should always be age-specific, and women need to be particularly careful to avoid over-exercising during pregnancy. Moderate exercise can be defined as exercise that increases fitness levels without being so strenuous that it poses a threat to health. The heart rate training zone is a good way of identifying over-exercise.

Alternatively, the conversation test is very reliable: if you feel so fatigued or out-of-breath that conversation would be impossible while exercising, then you are exercising too intensively. Another sign of over-exercise is working so hard that there is no surplus energy left to complete a cooling-down routine.

People may over-exercise for a number of reasons. Some people are simply in a hurry to become fit, lose weight or achieve improved muscle definition. Other people mistakenly believe that intense, strenuous exercise will bring health benefits (the saying ‘no pain, no gain’ may perpetuate this belief). Other people may over-exercise because they are suffering from an exercise addiction.

THE SIGNS OF OVER-EXERCISE

People who apparently take only moderate amounts of exercise for their age and level of fitness may sometimes exhibit signs of over-exercise. Closer examination may reveal that these people have depleted energy reserves caused by lack of sleep, high stress levels or inadequate nutrition, including insufficient hydration.

The physical signs of over-exercise include tiredness, weakness, pain in the joints, dark-coloured urine, pale skin colour, weight loss and repeated injuries and infections. Women may experience a cessation of menstruation, which causes temporary infertility. Injuries, including stress fractures and soft tissue injuries to ligaments, muscles and tendons, can result from over-exertion and inadequate recovery time. Increased susceptibility to infections, such as coughs, colds and flu-type upper respiratory tract infections, can be caused by exhaustion and stress, which suppress the immune system.

AVOIDING OVER-EXERCISE

Because over-exercise can cause accidents and injuries, and damage health, it is important to identify and avoid it. Taking adequate rest between exercise sessions and cross training are the two main ways of doing this.

Rest periods

It is vital to allow the body time to recover and rest. Many of the changes that make the body’s muscles capable of harder work take place during rest periods. When resting, the muscles are replenished with glycogen, the stored carbohydrate that provides the body with energy. When exercise is taken before muscles have recovered and refuelled, the individual feels exhausted and performs poorly. Beginners should allow a day’s rest between each aerobic session and two days between strength-training sessions.

Cross training

Repeatedly doing the same activities over a long period of time can lead to signs of over-exercise, such as overuse injuries. For example, running and high-impact aerobics can place stress on the leg muscles and joints. Activities should be varied to avoid repeatedly taxing the same joints and muscle groups. Combining different types of exercise is known as cross training.

An individual should devise a cross training programme that works on all areas of fitness – aerobic fitness, muscular strength and endurance, and flexibility – to protect the body from injury as well as benefiting overall health and pre-venting boredom. A cross-training programme could involve, for example, a combination of swimming, a weight-training session at a gym and a Yoga class.