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  • Writer's pictureClaire Harrison

Is too much exercise bad for you?

Regular physical exercise has been proved to promote psychological and physical health and to improve quality of life. But how much exercise is considered beneficial and is there such a thing as too much exercise?

According to the World Health Organisation, 1 in 4 adults do not meet the global recommended levels of physical activity. So how much exercise should we be having?

Adults aged between 18 and 64 years of age should do between two and half and five hours of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity; or at least 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity; or an equivalent combination of both every week. Adults in this age group should also do muscle-strengthening activities that involve all major muscle groups on two or more days a week.

If you’re aged 65 years and above you should try to incorporate the same amount of exercise time in your routine as the under 65’s but as part of your weekly activity, include physical activity that emphasises balance and strength training on three or more days a week to enhance functional ability and to prevent falls.

After exercising, individuals usually experience euphoric feelings. Most likely due to the release of hormones and chemical reactions in the human body. During exercise, en-dorphins released by the pituitary gland block the feeling of pain and induce pleasure. Physical activities also stimulate the production of dopamine, and an increased level of dopamine is associated with feelings of happiness and pleasure. In addition, the level of serotonin, a neurotransmitter accounting for euphoria and good appetite, is also increased during regular exercise. These “happiness hormones” may play a role in reducing stress levels and therefore have an in-direct connection to exercise overuse.

Distinguishing the difference between healthy physical activity over exercising or training is difficult to pinpoint. For example, if you are a professional athlete, it might be that you are simply trying to achieve your sporting goals which leads to what could be interpreted as addiction, but which in fact is a stringent training regime.

A 12-month study on top-level Swedish track and field athletes came up with some interesting findings on how ‘self-blame’ is a prime factor of injury caused by over training.[1]

After suffering an acute injury, an athlete’s worst fear is of relapse and so denial is often used as a coping behaviour when feeling pain during training. Anxiety causes the athlete to dismiss the pain regarding it as a temporary nuisance. Habitually using denial of the potential seriousness of the pain increases the risk of long-term exercise overuse conditions.

The Swedish study found that what seemed to matter in overuse injury was not the amount of training, but continued exercise applied in situations when the athlete’s body was in need of rest and restoration, partly caused by ‘inadequate self-perception among athletes’.

“Top-level track and field athletes regard themselves as being able to challenge the national record in their event. Athletes who use self-blame to cope with failure to reach such performance goals may be more prone to suffer frustration and this may lead to a vicious cycle characterised by negative thinking, undue acceptance of pain and irrational persistence in training.”

The psychological factor ‘self-blame’ predicts overuse injury among top-level Swedish track and field athletes: a 12-month cohort study
Figure 1 Overview of the three models of overuse injury risk (epidemiological, psychological and integrated) used to structure the data collection and analyses in the study

Alena Luciani, M.S., C.S.C.S., a strength and conditioning specialist and founder of Training2xl spoke about over exercising in an article for Shape magazine. She explains: “When you exercise you break down muscle fibres. This is usually a good thing because when the body repairs and rebuilds them, they become stronger than before. But, in order to order for the repair process to happen you need adequate sleep, nutrition, rest, and recovery. Fail to give your body those things, and you interfere with your body's ability to get stronger. If you continuously get in the way of your body rebuilding itself from the damage of the previous workout(s), you take your body to a place of chronic stress, which is called overtraining syndrome.”

What’s the answer? According to Luciani, getting the recommended amount of exercise is important. Getting more than that is long as you have a specific goal in mind and are continuing to give your body enough time to rest and recover between workouts. But if you start to experience any of the symptoms associated with overtraining syndrome, it's time to ring your doctor, scale back, and partner with a fitness professional.

[1] file:///C:/Users/enqui/Downloads/BJSMtimpka15psyc.pdf

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