Of course we know that exercise is good for us — and that its benefits extend to every aspect of well-being, including cardiovascular health, body composition, sleep, energy, and mood. But can we have too much of a good thing?
“The short answer is yes,” says Brad Dieter, PhD, a research scientist at the Providence Medical Research Center. “The longer answer is that it’s very difficult for the average person to overexercise.”
Dieter isn’t saying that the symptoms we associate with overexercise are false or fabricated. Instead, he’s saying that they’re usually caused by something else.
“Most of the symptoms related to overexercise in the average person are more likely linked to poor recovery, nutrition, sleep, and stress management,” says Dieter.
Essentially, the problem isn’t overexercise. It’s under-recovery.
Ironically, the symptoms of under-recovery are the same reasons a person may have started exercising in the first place: difficulty losing weight, increased fatigue, insomnia, trouble concentrating, anxiety, and depression.
Rightsizing your recovery is key to easing symptoms, but what works for one person might not work for another.
In general, though, “adequate recovery includes rest days, sleeping eight to nine hours every night, eating enough to fuel your training, and choosing micronutrient-rich foods that support muscle repair and energy production,” says holistic health expert Laura Schoenfeld, RD, MPH.
Your Body in Under-Recovery
The whole goal of exercise is to stress the body so it can learn to react in a positive way.
“Exercise stresses the cardiovascular system and triggers some of the mechanisms involved in the fight-or-flight response,” says Dieter. “The body adapts to those stressors with improved metabolism, increased muscle, and better circulation.”
If you’re not sleeping well, or if you’re not getting enough high-quality calories, those repair processes don’t function as they should. And if you don’t actively manage your stress through restorative practices like yoga, meditation, and making time for your favorite leisure activities, your body will remain in its fight-or-flight state — so it won’t even have the chance to reap the benefits of exercise. (For more on managing your stress response, see “Reset Your Stress.”)
Too much stress (in life and in the gym) and too little recovery “is like trying to put on the gas and the brake at the same time,” says Dieter. “Oftentimes you go nowhere.”
Still, it is possible to engage in too much movement. While there’s scientific debate over the mechanisms involved in overtraining syndrome (OTS), it’s generally defined as a negative response to exercise — not the positive adaptations people are looking for when they go to the gym.
But the symptoms of OTS — extreme fatigue, dramatically diminished athletic performance, lack of motivation, chronic dehydration, malaise, recurrent headaches, and swollen lymph nodes, to name a few — occur almost exclusively in extreme endurance athletes.
“When we’re talking about the general population, most people don’t overexercise,” says nutrition and exercise scientist James Krieger, MS.
Dieter agrees. “Someone who goes to the gym four to five hours a week? The chance of them overtraining is almost zero percent.”
Take a Break — and Still Lose Weight
The chance of that person under-recovering, however, is much greater. “Most of us sleep terribly, and we don’t manage our stress, and we get confused about the purpose of exercise,” says Dieter. Many people also restrict calories too dramatically and don’t eat enough high-quality, nutrient-dense foods.
“If you’re eating a low-calorie crash diet and training hard, you’re missing the point of exercise,” he says, adding that the goal of movement should be positive adaptations, like improved circulatory health and better performance at our sport of choice.
Yet combining too much movement with too few calories in an attempt to lose fat and gain muscle is a common under-recovery scenario. Schoenfeld says she sees it in her clients all the time. If this sounds like you, don’t be afraid to hit pause — the best thing you can do for your body is prioritize rest.
“I’ve taken breaks myself, and I’ve encouraged many of my weight-loss clients to do the same,” says Krieger.
You can also keep exercising, but experiment with reducing intensity or volume — at least temporarily. In fact, some experts think less-intense movement might be even better for losing weight.
“If your goal is weight loss, you’re better off just walking than you are going to bootcamp six times every week,” says Dieter.
The bottom line? You’ll experience more setbacks and weight-loss resistance if you don’t take time to rest and recover.