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How much of exercise is too much?

Over-exercise can be as harmful to your health as no exercise. Find out why, and also, the right way to work out.

brunch Updated: Dec 14, 2015 15:23 IST
Fitness,Exercise,couch potato
(Photo: Shutterstock)

Too much exercise? In a world where the words ‘workout’ and ‘fitness’ are revered, which is filled with lazy couch potatoes, is there such a thing? Yes, there is, and there are several studies to prove it.

Exhibit A

A study conducted by British physicians and presented at the European Society of Cardiology meeting in August this year says that excessive exercise, either in volume or intensity, may be associated with a higher risk of heart attacks.

The researchers compared the arteries of athletes who ran fewer than 35 miles a week or cycled fewer than 150 km a week with athletes who ran or cycled beyond that threshold. They found that athletes who ran a maximum of 35 miles a week had lower levels of coronary artery calcium (the plaque that blocks arteries) and were less likely to suffer from heart attacks and strokes as compared to sedentary adults.

But they also found that the group which exercised way more had higher levels of plaque. In other words, a dedicated runner who logged 50 miles a week had the same or worse heart than a couch potato.

Exhibit B

A report published in February by the College of Cardiology researchers from Denmark, says that people who push their bodies too hard actually undo the benefit of exercise. The researchers found that those who ran at a fast pace more than four hours a week for more than three days a week had about the same risk of dying during the study’s 12-year follow up as those who were sedentary. The researchers went on to suggest that jogging at a steady pace for less than two and a half hours a week was best for health.

Exhibit C

Another study done in Taiwan and published in the journal Lancet reported that while exercise helps increase longevity, the benefits of vigorous exercise plateaued at about 45 minutes a day.

If you overdo the exercise...

According to Dr Rommel Tickoo, consultant, internal medicine, Max Super Specialty Hospital, Saket, New Delhi, three things can happen to you if you over exercise.

1. Over exercise without a complementary hike in nutrition, can lead to a loss of lean-based muscle mass by forcing your body to use up its own muscle tissue for energy. This can cause your metabolism to drop, making you prone to weight gain.

2. The risk of injury to ligaments, tendons, joints, and bones magnifies due to the gradual wear and tear of the muscles and joints.

3. You may experience a drop in hormones (estrogen in women and progesterone in men). Women may also develop a condition called amenorrhea, which is the cessation of their monthly periods.

“Too much exercise also weakens the immune system, leading to frequent infections and illnesses, and even an increase of inflammatory processes in the body,” adds Dr Tickoo. “Sleeping patterns are affected, as too much adrenalin kicks in and dehydration and electrolyte imbalance may set in too.” Muscle cramping, heart palpitations, nausea, vomiting and dizziness are all signs that you need to stop exercising and drink water.

“Excessive exercise often results in stress, which results in excessive production of the hormone cortisol, which in turn leads to fat storage in the abdominal area,” points out Nisha Varma, Reebok master trainer. “Abdominal fat is a high risk factor for multiple health problems.” Burnouts that make you go off exercise completely after pushing yourself too much are also very common.

Varma has come across many cases of exercise burnouts in her career, after young women aiming to lose weight for a special occasion work out for two to three hours a day all the while on a starvation diet.

Are you addicted to exercise?

If you find yourself compulsively exercising for two hours a day, sometimes even more, you are probably addicted to exercise. Ask yourself: do you organise your exercise schedule around your life, or organise your life around your exercise schedule? The answer will tell you if you are an exercise enthusiast or an addict.

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Excessive exercise, like extreme diets, attracts people who feel an extreme need for control in their lives or those who are attempting by hook or by crook to change their body type. In case of the latter, they are probably influenced by celebrities who proudly tell the media how they exercise for two to three hours a day to get in shape for a movie.

“What the stars don’t add is that they also have injury issues,” says trainer Nisha Varma. “But then they also have access to the best advice and medical attention. For them the stakes are high, so they might be willing to pay the price for it, but should you?”

Holistic health guru Mickey Mehta agrees. “I have seen many young people live on frugal diets and supplements and work out excessively to develop six pack abs or 16 inch biceps trying to emulate their favourite star,” he says. “This in the long run can be destructive to your internal and physical and psychological health. I only endorse an exercise regime which promotes simple exercises that can be sustained.”

Get off that couch

All this talk of over-exercising doesn’t mean that the couch potato lifestyle is the best one. In fact, it is dangerous. Regular exercise is a must. It’s a habit that pays back far more than the effort it demands: it turns your body into a calorie-burning furnace and helps you lose weight. It releases endorphins (happy hormones) that make you feel good about life. It sharpens your mind. It cuts cholesterol and blood sugar.

But exercise is often misunderstood. Too little and too much of it can harm you. You don’t have to go to extremes to net the benefits. Slowing down when your body desires it is the right way to do it.

If you are obsessive about exercise, there are ways to break that obsession. “Try and cross train, take a break once a week, rest and recover before loading the body again,” says Varma. “Try variations and changes in intensity, work out with buddies, join cycling/walking clubs, focus on holistic fitness so include yoga, meditation, pilates and tai chi, eat healthy, take care of injuries to avoid permanent damage, and finally please understand that it is okay to take a break at times. Make health your long-term goal, not an obsessive short-term one.”

The obsessive checklist

Look at the following list and figure out whether all or some of the points apply to you. If yes, you should pause and give your exercise schedule serious thought.

* One hour of exercise is not enough. You want to go on and on.

* You do two or more sessions a day.

* You want to do the same routine each day (eg. run every day) and you can’t bear to change the form of the cardio element.

* You are tired, irritable or “supercharged” during the day.

* You can’t sleep well at nights.

* Your eating pattern has changed – you may eat too little or crave carbs.

*You count calories obsessively.

* You may avoid friends, parties and social get-togethers for fear of missing an early morning workout session.

* Your health checks may show you are anaemic.

* You have constant aches and pains.

* Your skin lacks lustre and you look pale and drawn or you lose hair.

* You get injured frequently while exercising.

–Nisha Varma, Reebok master trainer

Make the most of exercise

(Photo: Shutterstock)

* Research says that sitting too much, even if you exercise regularly, leads to higher rates of heart disease and cancer. So not only should you exercise frequently, but also avoid sitting in one place for too long. Take a five-minute break from your desk job every now and then, and walk around a bit.

* Swap your treadmill for a leafy garden path for holistic benefits. Exercising outdoors burns calories, increases muscle power – and also imparts an all-round sense of well-being. Research has shown that contact with nature helps the blood pressure drop and stress recede. You get an optimum dose of vitamin D too.

* Exercise in the morning for four good reasons.

A) Get the workout out of the way.

B) The endorphins generated by exercise will help reduce your level of stress throughout the day.

C) You force your body to burn fat for energy instead of carbs because you’ve been fasting all night.

D) It revs up your metabolism which then stays elevated throughout the day, meaning you’ll burn more calories and lose more fat. (You do burn calories when you exercise at night, but then you sleep and your metabolism slows down.)

* High intensity but brief workouts may be better for your health than long, continuous workouts.

From HT Brunch, December 14

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First Published: Dec 14, 2015 15:23 IST