Signs and symptoms you’re over exercising
The current guidelines from the US Department of Health and Human Services recommend that most adults engage in physical activity several times a week, including both aerobic and strength building activities. (3) These guidelines aren’t appropriate for everyone, especially individuals with certain injuries, illnesses, and chronic conditions (including eating disorders) who may not be able to safely exercise this amount or at all.
Moderate-intensity aerobic activities
High-intensity aerobic activities
- Brisk walking
- Water Aerobics
- Doubles tennis
High-intensity interval training
- Speed walking
- Jump roping
- Tabata training
However, the guidelines don’t mention a specific maximum limit where the benefits of exercise cease to exist, or for when further exercise becomes unsafe. Therefore, it’s not always clear when you’re doing too much in the gym or if you're experiencing “normal” soreness from exercising.
So, let's look at the signs and symptoms of over-exercising so you know what to look out for.
Strains and pains
Pushing yourself beyond your limits during high-intensity activity can lead to muscle pain and strains, and other exercise-related injuries. Overstressing your body can cause microtears in muscles that require time to heal if you want to improve your performance.
Overuse injuries and prolonged muscle soreness
While it’s normal to experience sore muscles after a workout, this should be occasional, not following every training session. Plus, the soreness shouldn’t last for more than a few days after a workout.
Furthermore, if you don’t allow your body to recover sufficiently between workouts, you may experience overuse injuries. For example, running too often can cause plantar fasciitis, shin splints, and stress fractures. More general overuse injuries include soft tissue injuries, broken bones, ligament tears, and joint strains.
Not eating enough
Intensive physical activity and weightlifting requires the right amount of fuel to support the body’s functioning. However, many people following a specific training schedule may restrict calories to try to manipulate their weight or physical appearance. They may also have a distorted idea of what they need to eat or consume to fuel their body with increased activity.
If you're consistently drawing on your body’s energy reserves, instead of fueling your workouts sufficiently, you’re at risk of developing nutritional deficiencies, like anemia.
Long-term underfuelling can lead to a condition known as RED-S (Relative Energy Deficiency In Sports), which can cause poor immunity, fatigue, and reproductive concerns including fertility issues, irregular periods, and sexual dysfunction. (4) Long-term underfueling can also affect people exercising excessively regardless of participation in a structured sport activity.
While you may believe that the more you exercise the better your performance, over-training can actually cause your performance to plateau or even decrease. You may experience a loss of endurance, strength, agility, and speed, making it harder to reach your training goals.
Furthermore, you may start to find your workouts are more challenging and take more effort than usual to get through. You might notice your heart rate is higher than normal when you're exercising and that it takes longer to return to its resting rate once your workout is over.
The physical and mental exhaustion that comes with over-exercising can cause a lack of motivation to work out and a lack of enjoyment in your training.
Feeling a certain level of physical tiredness is certainly not unusual after a workout. However, post-workout tiredness can turn into fatigue when you don’t allow your body to fully recover repeatedly.
If you’re over-exercising, you may feel excessively drained, during and after training, particularly if you’re regularly not providing your body with sufficient fuel.
Many people who engage in appropriate levels of movement they enjoy find it to be a mood booster. However, over-exercising and inadequate caloric intake can affect your stress hormone levels which can result in a mental fog, mood swings, depression, restlessness, irritability, and lack of concentration. (2)
Changes in weight and appetite
Regular exercise can stimulate appetite as your body needs fuel to replenish and repair after exertion. However, if you exercise too much, it can cause an imbalance in your hormones, including high levels of cortisol and low levels of testosterone, which can result in elevated or absent hunger cues, weight fluctuations, and loss of muscle.
Speaking of cortisol, when your stress hormones are imbalanced, you may find it difficult to unwind and relax at bedtime. This takes away from the time your body needs to rest and repair itself during sleep. (3)
Moderate exercise can be helpful for boosting your immunity and maintaining immune function. However, over-exercising can make you feel run down and make you more prone to infections, colds, and other mild illnesses. (4)
Tips for avoiding overtraining
If you think you’re over-exercising, the first thing you should do is listen to your body and evaluate your reasons for exercise. Do you truly enjoy the exercise you are doing or do you feel compelled to do it? Take a week or two away from the gym and allow your energy levels, mood, and motivation to return to what they are usually.
To avoid over-exercising in the future, make sure you focus on:
- Eating enough food to fuel your level of exercise, making sure to include foods which contain carbohydrates, protein, and fat.
- Drinking plenty of water, particularly when you’re exercising. Staying hydrated can also help with muscle pains and strains.
- Getting around eight hours of sleep a night, to help heal and restore the body following a workout.
- Having at least one rest day a week and leaving at least six hours between workouts for adequate recovery.
- Learning when to cut back on exercise, for example when you’re dealing with life stressors or are feeling unwell.
- Not exercising in the extreme hot or extreme cold as this is extremely taxing on the body.
- Finding forms of movement that you enjoy and which do not feel punishing or tedious.
Do I have an exercise addiction?
If your workout regime feels compulsive and rigid, you may be suffering from exercise addiction. Instead of being something you enjoy doing, exercise becomes something you feel like you have to do. Even though you’re aware of the negative consequences of your behavior, you continue to exercise anyway. (5)
Exercise addiction is often the result of eating disorders and body image disorders, and it is characterized by the following traits: (5,6)
- Needing to increase the amount of exercise to feel the same “buzz” or sense of accomplishment.
- Inability to reduce exercise level or to take a break from working out, even though a person may want to.
- An uncontrollable desire to exercise and obsessing over the behavior.
- Withdrawal symptoms, including anxiety, restlessness, sleep issues, and irritability, in the absence of exercise.
- Consistently exceeding the amount of time intended to spend exercising, with a great deal of time spent preparing for, engaging in, and recovering from exercise.
- Missing social, work, or other commitments in favor of exercising.
- Continuing to exercise despite injury and knowing that this behavior exacerbates psychological or interpersonal problems.
Help for exercise addiction
Exercise addiction isn’t easy to diagnose as most people experiencing it fail to see anything wrong with their behavior. However, if exercise addiction goes untreated it can have serious physical and mental consequences, including:
- Sleep disruption
- Lack of focus, inability to concentrate, and memory problems
- Social isolation
- Disordered eating and eating disorders
- Weakening of bones, and loss of bone mass
Thankfully, there are successful interventions for exercise addiction, with the most common form of treatment being therapy.
As with other behavioral disorders, cognitive behavioral therapy is usually recommended (CBT). This is because CBT works by helping a person recognize the adverse effects of their exercise addiction and identify the thoughts and emotions behind the behavior. A therapist will help them challenge these maladaptive thoughts and work with a person to develop better coping strategies.
While exercise can be enjoyable and beneficial for some people when done appropriately, over-exercising is often counterproductive and can be dangerous for your physical and mental health, as well as being detrimental to your fitness goals.
Signs that you’re excessively exercising include feeling fatigued, a decrease in performance, proclivity for injury, changes in appetite, and mood changes.
If you’re experiencing any of these issues, try adding more rest after working out and take days to rest and recover. Review your motivations for exercise and ask yourself if you are using it to avoid problems in your life or manipulate your body shape or weight. If these are primary motivating factors, it may be time to stop or adjust your exercise habits and seek support for these concerns.
If you find that you have a compulsion to exercise and your need to exercise supersedes everything in your life, you may be suffering from exercise addiction. While this may seem like a daunting issue to overcome, it can be treated successfully with proper treatment. Help is available and it is never too late to work towards building a healthier relationship with exercise.