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Does ‘too much of a good thing is a bad thing’ ring true even with exercise? Is there a point when too much becomes bad for you? Surprisingly, yes it can, according to leading Fitness Coach and ACE Certified Medical Exercise Specialist, Marissa Parry.
Although exercise is essential to our wellbeing, there may be a point when it can have negative effects on our health. This is not to say we should avoid having exercising as a part of a healthy weekly routine, but if you’re experiencing the following physiological responses, your body may be tell you to slow down:
Cortisol and adrenaline are hormones released during times of stress. Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies. Cortisol increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues. Scenario: a dog chases you, you enter ‘fight-or-flight’ mode and the release of these hormones help you take flight to run to safety. Once the threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal.
However, our fast-paced lives hinder this reaction as we are faced with far more stressors than running away from a dog! Work deadlines, managing relationships and running a household are just some of the challenges, and by adding excessive training into the equation, your body doesn’t have time to recover and remains in ‘fight-or-flight’ mode. What pays the price? Your immune system because cortisol has immunosuppressive effects putting you at risk of falling ill—exercise should keep you healthy, so if you’re getting sick, reduce the training.
High levels of cortisol also impairs your body’s fat burning ability and you may notice you aren’t losing weight and even gaining kilos. This could also be because you’re eating more carbs to compensate for the energy expenditure from all the exercising.
Strength training has been proven to increase bone density and should be incorporated in the fitness regime to keep bones strong. However, this positive effect can be negated with over-exercise. When cortisol is in the bloodstream, more bone tissue is broken down than deposited. Cortisol triggers bone mineral removal to free amino acids for use as an energy source through gluconeogenesis (production of new glucose). Cortisol indirectly acts on bone by blocking calcium absorption, which decreases bone cell growth, and this can lead to a higher risk of arthritis and osteoporosis.
Injury can occur as a result of over-exercising because the body experiences repetitive stress. We all get delayed-onset muscle soreness after a hard workout or long run; but if it lasts a few days and you feel exhausted, you’re overdoing it.
If you are having difficulty conceiving, take a look at your exercise regime. A study by Fertility and Sterility revealed that women of a normal weight (BMI 18.5 to 25) who exercised vigorously were 42% less likely to get pregnant compared to women who did not engage in vigorous exercise. The body interprets strenuous exercise as an inopportune time to stress the body further with reproduction and prevents ovulation.
However, for obese women high intensity exercise had no impact on conception. If your menstrual cycle is disrupted, your body is telling you something isn’t right and over-exercising may be the cause.
Overtraining often leads to insomnia, which can be debilitating for athletes in particular. Hormones that help with recovery and muscle building are produced when you’re asleep so insomnia hampers recovery hormones and creates cortisol instead. Insomnia can also slow lipolysis, which is the breakdown of fat into fuel; and with cortisol levels heightened, the body craves carbohydrates, which can get stored as fat. This can also lead to insulin resistance and adrenal fatigue.
The European Heart Journal suggested that overdoing fat-burning workouts could actually contribute to poor cardio health, particularly if there was a family history of irregular heart rhythm. The study measured the heart rhythms of over 52,000 cross-country skiers during a ten-year period, and found that the risk of arrhythmia is increased with every race completed, and was up to 30% higher for those who competed year-on-year for a period of five years. Exercise intensity also affected results: those who finished fastest were at higher risk for arrhythmia.
Overtraining can cause your sympathetic nervous system—which is responsible for the ‘fight-or-flight’ response—to go into overdrive, increasing heart rates and releasing adrenaline. This is because exercise is a stressor and the body reacts in the same way as in an emergency.
Besides the physiological effects, over-exercise can also have a detrimental effect on a person’s psyche—the need to constantly chase that burn, of feeling guilty if you miss a session and punishing yourself by not eating or doing extra exercise to compensate. The mental and emotional components of being obsessive leads to you feeling anxious, depressed, grumpy and less focused. Combined with insomnia, and your mood will deteriorate even further. Understanding what happens to your body when you exercise is imperative so you can find balance.