Our Western life if full of stress. From our jobs, to our kids and their activities, trying to maintain a relationship with our spouses combined with other deadlines and obligations, all of these factors can really wear us down. Add subpar eating habits and lack of sleep and you got yourself a recipe for fatigue, poor health and chronic disease. The signs of aging are subtle at first—gain a few pounds each year, clothes get a little tighter over time, you get out of breath trying chase your kids around and you decide to take action. You decide on an exercise program. It can be one of many: running, bodypump, Crossfit, “joining a gym”, cycling, etc. You dedicate yourself to the chosen activity or activities. You get up early 6 or 7 days a week to work out. You cut your sleep short to dedicate your time to your newfound path to health and fitness. You may have some early results of some weight loss but progress stalls with time or you get burnt out. You may have dramatic results and really transform your body into something new but it becomes such a chore to keep up with it that you wear yourself (physically and mentally) into the ground.
What is the problem in these situations?
OK, exercise isn’t ALWAYS the problem, but oftentimes it is.
It is important to understand that exercise causes STRESS. It should be used as an acute stress on the body in a manner that the body can respond and adapt and make you stronger and healthier. But in our society, exercise is often just an added stress on top of our already stressful lives and we don’t allow sufficient time to recover or we work out too hard too often. I know many people (and I was one of these people) who sacrifice 1 and sometimes 2 hours of sleep just to get up and workout. These people are regarded as disciplined and hardcore, but what they don’t often realize is that they may be putting themselves at risk for health issues.
The benefit from exercise does not occur during the exercise, it occurs during the rest period after the exercise is complete. This is achieved through proper nutrition, sleep and stress management. This is also achieved by allowing adequate time in between workouts so the body can completely recover. “Less is more” goes a long way with exercise. People think that training every day will make them better at the chosen exercise, but unless you are 20 years old and sleep 10 hours a night with no other responsibilities this is likely not going to be the case (unless you are a genetic freak). For the common folk, like myself and most people reading this, properly timed and proper amount of exercise is vital for optimal health and longevity and injury prevention.
I ran ultramarathon races (anything >26.2 miles) in my early to mid 30’s. I ran 3-4 days a week and lifted weights 3 days a week. I ran 30 and 50 mile races and even placed well in some of those. On the outside I looked like the picture of health but over time I started to feel like garbage. I got up to workout usually about 430 am (cutting my sleep by at least 1-1.5 hours) 6-7 days/week. Over time I got burned out as I was in a constant state of stress and never letting my body recover. I had an elevated resting heart rate (a sign of too much stress and overtraining), poor sleep, anxiety, irritability, and found myself getting sicker easier with upper respiratory infections. After some self-reflection, reading and research I determined I was overtraining and under-sleeping. I quit the “chronic exercise” pattern and after several weeks I felt healthy again. I have slowly and over time restructured my approach to exercise. My previous goals were FITNESS first and HEALTH second. I now focus on HEALTH first and FITNESS second.
If you are working out religiously, especially if you are cutting sleep to get up and workout, and not making progress and really not feeling all that great, consider restructuring when and how you exercise.
Signs you may be working out too much or too hard or not at the right time:
- Lack of progress—not losing weight despite exercising and eating healthy, not putting on muscle, no gains (such as not moving heavier weight or improving running/biking times)
- Tired during the day—Feel like you can’t stay awake in the afternoon and need coffee or some sort of stimulant
- Decreased sex drive—never a good sign. For men, not waking up in the morning with an erection.
- Feeling wired and tired. At nighttime you know you should be tired and may feel tired but you are also wired and can’t calm down to fall asleep.
- Elevated resting heart rate. It helps to know your “normal” resting heart rate to know if it is elevated. For me, my usual resting HR is in the 40’s to 50’s and when I was overtraining it was in the 80’s which technically is normal but was elevated for me.
- Getting sick more often than you should be. Chronic exercise and stress can lower your immune system making you more susceptible to illness
The Primal Fitness approach works great in regards to physical activity:
- Move frequently at a slow pace: this means move throughout the day. Ride a bike casually. Hike. Park at the farthest spot out in the parking lot. Try and get 10K steps/day.
- Lift Heavy Things: at least 2 days a week lift some heavy things. This can be traditional weights, bodyweight movements or some sort of structured program such as Crossfit. It doesn’t have to take long and doesn’t have to be fancy. 15-20 minutes twice a week will suffice. 3-4 times a week is plenty. Don’t do 5 days a week of Crossfit or any other intense exercise (unless you are 20 years old and sleep 10 hours a night or you are a genetic freak as I referenced before!).
- Sprint once in a while: get out and sprint once every 7-10 days. Keep it short and sweet. Make sure you are healthy enough to sprint before attempting. It doesn’t have to be running—it can be biking, swimming, rowing, etc. An example is: Warm up 5 minutes. Sprint x 20 seconds. Rest until recovered. Repeat 3-10 times. Cool down 5 minutes. Usually the entire workout takes less than 20 minutes and comes with lots of benefits.
- Play: do things that you enjoy. Play with your kids. Play a game of pickup basketball. Go to the pool and throw your kids around. Plant a garden. All of those things count as exercise despite what conventional exercise “wisdom” may tell you.
The point of this post is not to discourage you from exercise. The point is to inform you that excessive exercise can often work against you and some studies suggest can even put you at risk for some of the same health problems that sedentary people face because of the constant stress. Exercise, when done right, is great for improving health, mood, body composition, sleep, etc. The “more is better” approach to exercise is usually not of any benefit to the average person who works, has bills, a family and multiple other obligations.