Raise your hand if your weight-loss workout schedule looks something like this: SoulCycle before work; power yoga and weightlifting at the gym after. Some HIIT here and core circuits there. Oh, and don’t forget that run with the girls on Saturday morning before brunch!
You might feel tired just thinking about all that, but for some, it’s just another activity-packed week. Because the thinking often goes: If exercise is good for weight loss, more of it is better, right?
If you’ve grit your teeth through a workout despite being sick, tired, or injured, or even just tend to plan your entire life around your workouts, you’ve more than likely stepped into that Twilight zone of when too much of a good thing becomes counterproductive.
This is how to tell if you’ve crossed the line—and why you should scale it back, stat.
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“Too much” here can be difficult to measure and is largely dependent on the individual, says Nathan Jones, a physical therapist at Atlas Physical Therapy in South Carolina. An elite-level athlete who’s used to working out a ton is better equipped to handle the stress than the typical gym-goer, says Jones.
But JC Deen, a personal trainer based in Nashville, says that indicators that you might be overdoing it at the gym can include: feeling tired all the time, having a hard time sleeping, being unable to go as hard as usual in your workouts, experiencing a loss of interest in working out, and generally feeling irritable.
Anything that’s bad for your body and overall health is going to be bad for your weight-loss goals. First of all, over-training can lead to an increase in the stress hormone cortisol, which can tank your metabolism and mood, and even cause you to store more fat.
Plus, the idea that you can “erase” that dinner of lasagna and chocolate molten lava cake by working it off at the gym is misguided and inaccurate. “[Women who overexercise] typically feel that exercising is a way to maintain their shape, and if they cut back, they will regress, gain weight, and not be able to eat as much as before,” says Deen. This concept of working out to “earn” your food intake is something he sees often among the clients he works with.
However, a review of studies in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, for example, shows that exercise’s impact on weight loss is often modest. (We’ve all heard that weight loss is 80 percent diet, 20 percent exercise, and that’s actually pretty accurate.)
Another 2015 paper from the University of Alabama suggests that using exercise to create a calorie deficit is not as simple as calculating your “calories in” versus “calories out.” That’s because simple math doesn’t account for the fact that the body is dynamic. Basically, just because you burned 300 calories on your morning run doesn’t mean you can eat an extra 300 calories at happy hour—even if you’re still within your calorie goals for the day. Metabolism is complex and our bodies burn calories in many ways, of which exercise contributes just a small part. And using exercise to offset or justify high-calorie foods just hurts your long-term motivation.
That said, exercise is a part of the weight-loss equation, just not the main part, which is where rest days come into play. It can be super easy to overdo it on exercise and under-do it on rest days. The urge to be extreme in fitness seems to be woven into the stretchy-spandex fabric of our culture: No one glorifies not exercising. In fact, working so hard that you puke sometimes seems to be encouraged.
But rest is necessary for you to continue seeing results. According to a study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, “full training recovery is essential to optimal performance.” “When you get to the point of being unable to properly recover from your sessions and you’re not making progress, you’re just putting more wear and tear on your body than necessary,” Deen says.
The American Council on Exercise (ACE) defines a rest day as a non-training day, which means that you’re not doing anything to physically challenge your body and you hopefully spend time away from the gym. Sure, you can take it as permission to sit on your tush and watch Netflix all day, but experts often recommend doing light activity, or “active” recovery, to help you recover faster. Some examples include a brisk walk or moderate hike, mobility work, yoga, or technique work at the gym.
Your rest days should be pre-established. Rest days are oftentimes baked into thoughtful workout programs. For example, you may work out hard four days per week, take two “active rest” days (think: yoga or walking), and one day completely off to relax. “If all you’re doing is running day in and day out, there’s a good chance you’re going to develop some nagging pain in spots around your hips, knees, and ankles,” says Jones, who sees these problems often in his clinic.
“More isn’t better because we can only recover from so much, and doing anything above and beyond what we can recover from oftentimes just leads us to regress or hurt ourselves,” says Deen.
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