Beginning an exercise program—and then maintaining it over the long term—is one of the best things you can do for yourself. Not only will it enhance your weight-loss efforts, but it will also boost your energy levels and overall physical and emotional health.
But can you get too much of a good thing?
The answer to this question is unequivocally yes. You can certainly overdo it if you go too hard in your workouts (based on your individual capabilities and fitness level) over an extended period of time. In the sports world, they call this overtraining.
“Overtraining is very real and is probably more common than we realize,” says Wes Dudgeon, PhD, associate professor and chair in the Department of Health and Human Performance at College of Charleston in South Carolina. “It can present itself as overall fatigue and lethargy, irritability, decreased performance, and injury—but not just in elite athletes. Overtraining can also occur with recreational fitness, so it’s something we all need to be aware of.”
Find a Happy Medium
So how do you know if you’re overexerting yourself? Dudgeon touched on some of the telltale signs, but it’s a tricky thing to diagnose. High-level athletes these days, according to Dudgeon, often have their blood and/or saliva tested to determine if they’re in an overtrained state, but such tests are impractical (and unnecessary) for most people.
Plus, there’s a balancing act to it all: You don’t want to push yourself too hard in your workouts, but you also don’t want to go too easy. Exercise is a stress to the body, but exposing yourself to some level of stress is beneficial, making the muscles and other systems of the body—like the immune and cardiovascular systems—adapt and get stronger.
“Intense exercise can cause temporary inflammation, and this is actually good because it’s necessary for muscle growth and recovery,” says Dudgeon. “However, long-term inflammation is considered unhealthy and can be a risk factor for illness. Increased levels of cortisol—the primary stress hormone—can be a good indicator, but many things, even a bad day at work, can raise your cortisol and stress levels. That’s why this topic is so difficult to explain, predict, and ultimately control.”
A good place to start, however, is to ease into your exercise program, moderating both intensity and volume (total amount of time spent exercising). If you haven’t exercised in years—and especially if you’re brand-new to resistance-training—busting out of the gates with four- to five-hour gym sessions per week is a recipe for injury.
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week for adults, by way of three to five cardio sessions and working each major muscle group with resistance-training 2-3 times weekly. But this shouldn’t necessarily be a starting point, where right away you’re working out five times a week for 30 minutes. Start with 2-3 short workouts per week (even as brief as 10-15 minutes each) and progress slowly from there.
Dudgeon states that resistance-training workouts can consist of free weights (i.e., dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells), machines, suspension-training (i.e., TRX straps), bodyweight-only exercises, or a combination of all of these. He’s also quick to point out that sore muscles don’t necessarily constitute overtraining. “Any type of exercise that’s new will cause muscle soreness, which is completely normal,” he says.
Get Your R&R
Keeping intensity and volume in check is key, but it’s just as important that you get adequate recovery between workouts. Outside of proper nutrition, there are two key factors involved here: rest days and sleep.
Make sure you’re taking days off from your workouts. In addition to the above guidelines, ACSM recommends letting your muscles rest at least 48 hours between resistance-training sessions; for example, if you did a full-body workout with weights on Monday, don’t do another until at least Wednesday.
With cardio, the higher the intensity, the more rest days you’ll need. If intensity is kept at low to moderate levels, you can probably get away with going consecutive days once or twice a week. For true beginners, however, 48 hours between cardio workouts is advisable, at least for the first few weeks; and those cardio sessions should certainly be at low- to moderate-intensity levels at first.
Adequate sleep is critical as well. Without it, recovering fully from workouts is nearly impossible. Carwyn Sharp, PhD, CSCS, chief science officer of the National Strength and Conditioning Association, suggests being strict with getting seven to nine hours of sleep per day.
“Reaching your goals is about the choices you make,” says Sharp. “Consistently go to bed on time — like, 9:00. If that’s not realistic, not all of your sleep needs to be at night, although at least 80 to 90 percent should be. Grabbing a power nap can help a lot.”
As with most things, a proper exercise program has balance. Not just balance between weights and cardio, but between exertion and recovery as well.