Exercise – can there be too much of a good thing?

It’s the New Year and many people will start exercise regimes to help them on their weight loss journey and throw everything; energy, time and resources at their weight loss, strength gain, or health goals, feeling invigorated and energised, high on their new workout drug.

This full-on approach seems to work for a while. However, things may then start to deteriorate. Stalling of weight/fat loss, fatigue, aches and pains and generally feeling run down may become more frequent.

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This can often be from overtraining, which is defined by the National Academy of Science and Medicine as “an accumulation of training and/or non-training stress resulting in long-term decrease in performance capacity”.

If you are consistently exercising at a high intensity most days of the week and not scheduling in wholesome nutrition, good quality sleep and recovery days, your dedication will become counterproductive and most likely result in overtraining.

This blog discusses how to maximise your recovery from exercise and avoid the pitfalls of ‘overtraining’.


Moderate exercise offers many benefits. Physical activity is recognised for boosting self-esteem, mood, sleep quality and energy, as well as reducing stress and depression. Furthermore, people who take part in regular exercise have a lower risk of many chronic diseases, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, some cancers and dementia.

However, it is important to be aware that exercise is also a stressor. In moderation normally a beneficial stressor. If you exercise at high intensity and/or often, you add stress to a body that may already be stressed from other factors such as work, relationships, young children, sleep deprivation, travel, late nights, etc. If recovery is not considered, your body may well start to show the signs of overtraining.

For example, when you complete a high intensity full body workout routine, or do lots of compound movements like squats, push-ups, overhead presses or deadlifts, your muscles get broken down. Over the next 24-48 hours the body repairs or replaces damaged muscle fibres through a cellular process where it fuses muscle fibres together to form new muscle protein strands or myofibrils. These repaired myofibrils increase in thickness and number to create muscle hypertrophy (growth). Because of this, it doesn’t benefit us to work out at high intensity every day; recovery time is required to allow recuperation and muscle growth.

How well you will recover (and how much extra recovery time you might need) depends on your allostatic load. This is defined as:

“the wear and tear on the body” that accumulates as an individual is exposed to repeated or chronic stress.(1)

A high allostatic load can lead to the body being permanently in a catabolic state. Catabolism is the metabolic breakdown of complex molecules into simpler ones, often resulting in a release of energy. A catabolic state is a state in which your body is breaking down tissue. A chronic catabolic state can be caused by prolonged stress due to excessive training coupled with a lack of adequate nutrition, especially protein.

Since overtraining is a condition that grows worse over time, it makes sense to be on the lookout for psychological and physiological indications, including:

  • Mood changes such as irritability, depression, and the inability to concentrate.
  • Altered heart rate and blood pressure, especially an elevated resting heart rate early in the morning. If your resting heart rate is elevated from your normal baseline and your blood pressure has increased then your body isn’t recovering.
  • Abnormal aches and pains, nagging injuries that seem not to heal, or other related symptoms are usually brought on by overtraining.
  • Succumbing easily and frequently to cold or flu bugs or other pathogens in the environment, which signifies a compromised immune system.
  • Muscle wasting
  • Increased fat accumulation
  • Increased inflammation
  • Catabolic hormones such as cortisol are frequently elevated

As a result, you might experience:

  • Blood sugar ups and downs
  • Depression, anxiety, and/or racing thoughts
  • Trouble sleeping or trouble waking up
  • Food cravings
  • Lower metabolism due to decreased thyroid hormone output
  • Disrupted sex hormones (in women, irregular or missing menstrual cycles)

So what drives people to overtrain?

Chronic exercising to gain ‘the perfect body’

Some people depend on intense exercise to feel good about themselves “to get the perfect body”.

Have you heard of the saying “you can’t exercise your way out of a bad diet”? In truth, you can’t even exercise your way out of a reasonably good diet.

The link between exercise and weight reduction was first introduced in the 1950s by a French-American nutritionist, Jean Mayer. As an advisor to the White House and the World Health Organisation, he drew correlations between exercise and fitness that triggered a revolution in thinking on the subject. “Getting fit” became synonymous not just with healthier living, but with a leaner body, and the ground was laid for a flourishing health club industry. However, as discussed above, his research only found a connection; not causation. Increasingly research in both the UK and the US is emerging to show that exercise alone has a negligible impact on weight loss.(2,3)

Exercise to control the body

Intense exercise gives people some sense of control over their body. People who often want to try hard and do their best to reach their goals. This is often more prevalent in type A personalities.(4)

Type A individuals are described as outgoing, ambitious, rigidly organised, highly status-conscious, sensitive, impatient, anxious, proactive, and concerned with time management. They are often high-achieving “workaholics” pushing themselves with deadlines, and hate both delays and ambivalence.(5)


Recovery is a fundamental element of training and racing, but is underestimated by many people. It is particularly important for those who train frequently, as inadequate recovery can reduce the body’s capacity to maintain high-volume and high-intensity training sessions.

For every intense workout, there should be an equally intense focus on nutrition and activities that help your body repair and rebuild.

An effective recovery routine incorporates:

1. Active Rest
2. Nutrition
3. Sleep

Active Rest

Recovery won’t happen by accident. Plan it and prepare for it. Do remember that your recovery between workouts is just as important as training. However, to help maintain momentum, rather than planning a complete rest day, it is a good idea to schedule in an active rest/recovery day.

Some ideas for active rest:

  • Flexibility and mobility. Stretching and mobility work helps prepare our body for the rigours of more intense exercise, helping you to stay injury free. Try Pilates, yoga or tai chi classes.
  • Perform a fun activity such as a dance class, swim with your kids.
  • Go for an easy walk, cycle or swim, preferably in a natural, outdoor setting.
  • Learn to play an instrument – a great mental workout.

The most important thing is to listen to your body.


During training, muscle proteins are broken down, and glycogen (carbohydrate) stores and electrolyte levels are reduced. Proper recovery allows the muscles to repair and adapt to the demands being made of them. This, in turn, leads to improvements in performance.

Consumption of carbohydrates and fluids (including electrolytes) after exercise is recommended. Both are particularly important for those completing endurance exercise, when the likelihood of glycogen depletion and dehydration is high.

In addition, following intense training or racing, a rapidly digestible, high-quality protein such as whey is often consumed. Protein is necessary for muscle repair and recovery, as well as muscle hypertrophy. Insufficient intake can lead to muscle wasting and impaired performance. Protein also supports immune function and hormonal balance and can act as an energy source too. Protein taken after exercise may help to shift the body from a catabolic to an anabolic state, which reduces muscle breakdown.(6)

After exercise the enzymes and transporters in our muscles responsible for glycogen and protein synthesis are highly active and at this point, the muscle cells are sensitive to insulin and a combination of protein and carbohydrate may help to increase muscle glycogen stores. Theories differ regarding post-workout nutrient timing but within the first 30 minutes up to 2 hours is generally advocated.

As mentioned above, high intensity exercise will have a profound impact on the body. Not only does it initiate increases in strength, muscle growth and endurance but it places a load on the body, often resulting in muscle soreness and oedema, and thus increases the amount of inflammation in the body. However, generally it seems that long-term exercise interventions (greater than 8 weeks) are an effective way to reduce the inflammation response and improve physical fitness.(7)

This inflammatory response in most cases will be the result of micro-traumas affecting muscles, connective tissue, joints, and bone. These micro-traumas are what allow the body to adapt and withstand a similar workout in the future.

But without ample recovery and the proper level of nutritional support, the body could remain in a catabolic state thus increasing the probability of chronic inflammation and impaired immune function. Furthermore, chronic inflammation, may contribute to increased risk of chronic diseases such as obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.(8)

Dietary antioxidants including vitamin C, vitamin E, carotenoids (mainly β-carotene), polyphenols (eg, flavonoids), selenium, glutathione and coenzyme Q10 have been found to be especially efficacious in supporting exercise-induced oxidative stress, inflammation, delayed onset of muscle soreness (DOMS) and immune dysfunction.(9,10,11,12)

In addition, EPA and DHA found in fish oil or from eating cold-water fish like tuna or salmon have anti-inflammatory properties.(13,14)

Furthermore live bacteria from either supplements or fermented foods help to support immunity and have been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects.(15)


L-glutamine is a non-essential amino acid involved in the synthesis of proteins as well as an important fuel for some cells of the immune system, it may therefore have specific immunostimulatory effects.

Plasma glutamine concentration is lower after prolonged, exhaustive exercise: this may contribute to impairment of the immune system and leave the athlete susceptible to opportunistic infections.

A study(16) was carried out where glutamine was offered to middle-distance, marathon and ultra-marathon runners, and elite rowers, in training and competition. Glutamine was found to reduce the risk of post exercise infections as well as increasing the ratio of cells that fight infection (T-helper cells).

Current research findings regarding glutamine are mixed, with some studies showing no post-workout benefit(17,18) and others reporting improved energy stores, immunity and reduced soreness.(19,20)


Sleep is a vital part of your recovery. During sleep our body cells detoxify and cleanse. When we are in darkness, the pineal gland releases a hormone called melatonin which is responsible for maintaining the body’s circadian rhythm and aids restful sleep.

Melatonin facts:

  • Promotes the up-regulation of antioxidant defence systems
  • Encourages reversal of inflammatory processes
  • Jet lag, shift work and poor vision can disrupt melatonin cycles.
  • Caffeine, tobacco and alcohol can all lower levels of melatonin in the body.
  • Blue light emitted by screens (TV, computer, phone, etc.) suppresses melatonin levels, making it more difficult to fall asleep.
  • Daytime exercise and light exposure promote regular circadian rhythm of melatonin and help ensure higher levels at night.
  • Montmorency cherry is a natural source of melatonin

The precursor to melatonin is serotonin, a neurotransmitter that is derived from the amino acid tryptophan. Like melatonin, serotonin is known to affect the way you sleep and it transmits signals between nerve cells that alter your everyday brain functions.

In summary, listen to your body and judge when “enough” exercise turns into “too much.” Give yourself eight hours of sleep a night, take active rest days to relax, and remember to eat enough calories from good quality, unprocessed food to support your level of activity. Everyone has a different tolerance level and it’s up to you to discover what that is, so judge how you feel and work in greater partnership with your body.

Key Takeaways

  • Moderate exercise offers many benefits. Physical activity can boost self-esteem, mood, sleep quality and energy, as well as reducing your risk of stress, depression.
  • However, it is important to be aware that exercise is also a stressor. If you are consistently exercising at a high intensity and not scheduling in wholesome nutrition, good quality sleep and recovery days, your dedication will become counterproductive and most likely result in overtraining.
  • If you exercise at high intensity and/or often, you add stress to a body that may already be stressed from other factors. This can lead to the body being permanently in a state of ‘break-down’ rather than ‘repair’.
  • Because of this, it doesn’t benefit us to work out at high intensity level every day; recovery time is required to aid recuperation and muscle growth.
  • Signs of overtraining include irritability, food cravings and sleep issues etc.
  • For every intense workout, there should be an equally intense focus on nutrition and activities that help your body repair and rebuild.

An effective recovery routine incorporates:

1. Active Rest e.g. this can incorporate gentler exercise such as stretching, balance and walking
2. Nutrition – adequate carbohydrate and good quality protein from wholefood sources
3. Sleep – aim for 8 hours per night

If you have any questions regarding the topics that have been raised, or any other health matters, please do contact me (Jackie) by email at any time (jackie@cytoplan.co.uk)

Jackie Tarling and the Cytoplan Editorial Team

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Last updated on 24th April 2019 by cytoffice


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