Exercise is a major component of a healthy lifestyle, and the benefits of regular physical activity are well established. When adopting a Paleo lifestyle, modifying your fitness routine to include more high intensity exercise can bring great benefits to energy, body composition, and overall fitness.
However, there are many people who take their physique and physical fitness to an extreme level, particularly in the Paleo community. Certain styles of exercise take the participant to a state of physical exhaustion on a regular basis, which may do more harm than good.
While a consistent, high intensity workout routine may provide some benefits for those people looking to lose body fat and increase their strength and fitness, there is a fine line between training hard and overtraining. While running fast and lifting heavy may be major components of an active Paleo lifestyle, engaging in these physically demanding activities too regularly or too intensely can contribute to many different symptoms of overtraining.
Overtraining goes beyond just excessive “chronic cardio” or too many hours spent at the gym. Certain high-intensity exercise routines may push the body’s stress response too far, leading to a cascade of biochemical responses that can cause serious damage to one’s health in both the short and long term.
While short, intense workouts can be great for inducing fat loss, increasing aerobic capacity, and reducing risk for cardiovascular disease, excessively intense exercise can cause a variety of health problems, especially for those dealing with other concurrent stressors such as autoimmune disease, gut dysbiosis, or adrenal fatigue.
Overtraining has been shown to affect blood levels of important neurotransmitters such as glutamine, dopamine and 5-HTP, which can lead to feelings of depression and chronic fatigue. The stress caused by intense, excessive exercise can negatively affect the hypothalamic-pituitary axis, possibly causing conditions such as hypothyroidism. Hypothyroidism is known to cause depression, weight gain, and digestive disfunction along with a variety of other symptoms. As we know, high stress in general can cause symptoms of hypothyroidism, and the stress caused by excessive, intense exercise is no exception.
Another major effect that extreme exercise has on our bodies is an immediate increase in cortisol, the hormone that is released when the body is under stress. Heavy-resistance exercises are found to stimulate markedly acute cortisol responses, similar to those responses found in marathon running. Chronically high levels of cortisol can increase your risk for a variety of health issues, such as sleep disturbances, digestive issues, depression, weight gain, and memory impairment. Excess cortisol also encourages fat gain, particularly around the abdomen.
When a goal of exercise is to lose weight or improve energy, overtraining can clearly be a major barrier to achieving those goals.
Overtraining can also have harmful effects on the immune system. Research has shown that the cellular damage that occurs during overtraining can lead to nonspecific, general activation of the immune system, including changes in natural killer cell activity and the increased activation of peripheral blood lymphocytes. This hyperactivity of the immune system following intense overtraining can possibly even contribute to the development of autoimmune conditions.
This type of nonspecific immune response is associated with symptoms such as chronic fatigue, weight loss, decreased appetite, and sleep changes. Altered immune status is also known to affect the hypothalamic-pituitary axis, and may be responsible for the hypothalamic-pituitary dysfunction and hypothyroidism known to occur in overtrained athletes.
Mark Sisson talks about the different signs of overtraining, which may be more common in endurance training but is nonetheless possible in high intensity training as well. Feeling ill or rundown, losing muscle mass, gaining fat, and constant exhaustion can all be signs of excessive exercise of any type. Not only is this counterproductive to most people’s fitness and health goals, but it is also a sign of sickness. In the path to better health, any activity that makes you more fatigued and more prone to infection is definitely something to be avoided.
So does this mean you should quit CrossFit, or stop pushing towards your weightlifting goals? Not necessarily.
Here are a few techniques to avoid overtraining while still enjoying high intensity exercise:
- Reduce the frequency. While pushing yourself hard at the gym is not inherently problematic, doing it too often during the week is overtraining. High intensity, high stress exercise should be limited to two or three times a week, especially for those who are dealing with other health issues such as autoimmune conditions or digestive troubles. Compounding those stressors with extra stress from your exercise routine will not leave you healthier, and can easily cause you to become more sick.
- Get adequate rest. I’ve written before about how important sleep quality is for health. Not only is taking breaks from exercise important, but getting adequate sleep to allow recovery from intense exercise is vital to avoiding the overtraining syndrome. Make sure you are getting adequate sleep, particularly on the days you train. Interestingly, one symptom of overtraining is disturbance of sleep, so if you’re feeling restless and having trouble sleeping through the night, you may want to reconsider the intensity of your training schedule.
- Mix it up. While high intensity exercise may be ideal for losing body fat and improving lean muscle mass, we know that high levels of cortisol can cause the body to hold onto fat. For this reason, you may consider trying a type of exercise that can help modulate your cortisol levels. Some may knock yoga as being too easy to affect weight loss, but regular yoga practice is shown to reduce cortisol levels, which may help in reaching your weight and fitness goals. Instead of doing a fourth day of CrossFit, try doing a yoga class instead. You may find that this stress reducing exercise helps you recover more quickly from your more intense exercise schedule.
- Eat more carbohydrates. While cutting down carbohydrate consumption is often seen as the best way to decrease body fat, a combination of overtraining and low-carb eating can actually raise cortisol significantly and negatively impact immune function. There is also a possibility that very low carbohydrate (VLC) diets suppress thyroid function, a debate thoroughly discussed by Paul Jaminet on his blog. So if you’re regularly doing high intensity training and want to avoid symptoms of overtraining stress, don’t skimp on the carbs!
High intensity exercise can be a great way to improve body composition and enhance your general health, if done the right way. As with all components of our lifestyle changes, the key is moderation and listening to your body. If you choose to participate in these high intensity training programs, always use your best judgment and don’t let coaches or fellow athletes push you past your comfort zone.
Now, I’d like to hear your experiences with different exercise programs – did your health improve or suffer after increasing the intensity of your training? Have you been able to find a balance between intensity and adequate recovery?