Why You May Need to Exercise Less | Chris Kresser

Why You May Need to Exercise Less

by

Last updated on

iStock.com/francisblack

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?

356 Comments

Join the conversation

  1. Completely agree with this post. Most people are training way too often given all of the other stressors they are faced with in modern society. And, training less can actually provide more benefits, provided one is doing the right exercises and focused on the right intensity. For example, full body workouts two times per week can be just as effective, if not more so, than any other workout for gaining muscle. Plus, the central nervous system gets fully recovered in between workouts; something that hardly ever happens when one is working out nearly every day.

    • [Brandie-Moderator] Hi Branden, thanks for your question. There are several links to evidence sources throughout the article.

  2. Thanks Chris, Your article is extremely informative and answered a lot of questions for me. I was very active when younger but haven’t done any serious exercise for about 15 years. Then 5 months ago i did 3 weeks of crossfit 5 days a week. I have always tended to push to the limit. I expected to feel fantastic. I didn’t. I became extremely exhausted all day and had to push through each day. I stopped as i had to go overseas and although have wanted to return i haven’t felt ‘fit’ enough to return. I have suffered from chronic fatigue in the past and wasn’t sure if i should do crossfit. After reading your article i think i will start again but only do 3 x a week.
    thanks heaps

    • Thanks Chrissie, Hope you are feeling better now. My situation is exactly similar to yours. I started working out after a long gap and kept pushing myself to the limit and ended up hypothyroid. Did you get your blood tested? I have elevated thyroid antibodies. Just wondering if that too is due to over exercising. Anyone else who recorded high TPO antibodies due to over exercising? pls let me know.
      Any info is highly appreciated.

      Thanks
      Ravi

  3. I’d like to see the study that supports this claim: “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.” I clicked on the hyperlink but was shown a 404 error. Thanks!

  4. Can losing 26 pounds in twelve weeks (intentionally) and high intensity workouts every day cause blood pressure to rise considerably?

    • I am no expert; but i have read you shouldn’t do high intensity workouts everyday. It will help with weight loss but it will place a lot of stress on the body and its systems and leave you lacking adequate rest for your body to recover. This lack of recovery time could also increase the risk of injury. IMO i think you should consider incorporating two rest days to you week, or at the very least two days when you do low intensity exercise, like yoga or going for a walk. Also, see a doctor about your blood pressure.

  5. Hi, I am a 35 male. I allways been a fan of gym (weights and cardio). I managed ok in both of them. Since last March i start loosing muscle mass at a rythm of 2 kgs a month, quit running in order to mantain weight. Now i am still loosing muscle but i am gaining fat aswell. Still on the gym for 50 mins 5x a week . didnt loose that much strenght. I think ive got cortisol issues, my Urinary free cortisols are extremelly high – x8 more tan max (not so quite on blood) .
    Nutrition is the same. Am I on chronic stress ? I can not explain what is happenning to me and doctors are useless.
    Thks

    • If the weight loss suddenly started without any obvious cause (such as changes to your diet and activity levels) then you should get it properly investigated by a doctor. If you don’t like the doctor you have, find a new one/get a second opinion.

  6. Hey everyone my name is Dustin and I have a question regarding overtraining induced Insomnia due to the fact that I have seemed to have developed it overnight (started 4/8/2016) and have not resolved it after 5 months and still ongoing (8/1/2016). I am reaching out in desperation to anyone who may have been through this experience that might happen to have insights of what I can do to cure or remedy my situation as it has seriously been wrecking my life in every aspect.
    First off, a little background of me including lifestyle, daily habits, and what I think may be the culprit of my insomnia.
    I’m a single child (5’11/ 200lbs) living in SoCal, soon to be 25 years of age (august 8) and am your typical guy who goes to Work, School, Gym (5 days a week) and carries a normal life as any college student would in regards to regularly socializing with friends, dating, going out, spending time with family and basically enjoying life. I am a Gym goer that is pretty strict with my eating patterns, eating every 3 to 4 hours in order to keep me satiated, functioning, and able to fuel my weekly workouts (roughly 3-4k calories / 200g of protein ample amounts of carbs and healthy fats per day). The occasional weekend cheat meal is also a given because I like to enjoy myself every once in a while.
    So I’ve written up at the top that my issue started April 8th 2016. It’s good to note that prior to this happening for the most part in the month of May I had changed up my training schedule from my normal bro split consisting of
    M Chest T Back W Legs T OFF F Shoulders S Arms S OFF REPEAT –
    Workouts consisted of 4-8 exercises per body part training in the 65-85% of 1RM with sets of 3-4 in the 10-12 rep range. So my preferred style of training was high volume which is my bread and butter and has always blown me up and given me great results without injury, diminishing returns or setbacks. I forgot to mention that I have been training since the age of 19 so I know what I’m doing for the most part in regards to form, range of motion, rest days, supplementation, progressive overload, recovery, nutrition etc. Not to say that I know everything -which I don’t, and especially not in terms of periodization which I will get to in the next part of this.
    So I went from that type of training style that I used for most of my training career and decided I wanted to increase my strength at a faster pace with a more structured program. I researched online for various strength training regimes and came across the “Ice cream Fitness 5×5 novice program” that only called for training 3 days a week which focused on increasing overall mass and strength on the bigger lifts (bench, deadlift, squat, ohp, and rows) and decided I would give it a go. Compared to the high volume type of training I was on, I guess you could say this was a much more intense style of training calling for 5 sets of 5 reps on the main lifts using around 75% of your 1 RM and ramping it up by 5lbs every other workout. My gym sessions would normally be 1.5 hours long tops, and with this new type of style I would be so gassed out set after set on the big lifts and taking about 3-5 minutes of rest in between sets stretching my workouts to almost 3 hours in length. I think this is where I believe I jumped the gun. So I started this program back in May and throughout the whole month on the program I felt as if I wasn’t recovering fast enough or my body was not adapting as it should have to this new style of training. Throughout my time on this program (one month, did not complete) I felt my body becoming exhausted after each session and I always felt tired, but I kept going workout after workout because in my mind I thought it was part of the process so push through it and keep making progress. So on my last workout before discontinuing I recall doing the deadlift @275 for 5×5 and I remember trying to load up one side of the bar and yanked it up pretty fast and felt a strain from around my upper right trap down to about mid right back and felt as if that was the last string for the day and could not continue my workout. I went home and showered then went to get a haircut at around 8pm and I remember telling the barber I felt completely out of it and apologies if I didn’t talk to him for most of the cut. I also was going to go out that night with a few friends to grab a few drinks but I declined their invitation because I was so exhausted and fatigued. I went to bed that night April 7th 2016 and woke up the next day in a complete daze. I felt warm and completely out of it like I was drunk or hung-over and my vision seemed blurry and out of focus. I have never experienced a feeling like this in my life so I was pretty spooked. I thought I was coming down with the flu so I tried to rest and sleep it off but fast forward a week and nothing changed. At this point I schedule a Dr’s apt and they told me I had “Benign Positional Vertigo” which was BS because I wasn’t feeling dizzy, just “out of it” or “spaced out.” What a waste of a 60$ co pay because I had no insurance. I also went to a Chiropractor at the time to get an adjustment in hopes of it maybe being a pulled muscle that might have been restricting blood flow to my brain or whatever. Week 2 strolls by and nothing changes – at this point I start to panic and search Google for all types of symptoms and reasons as to why I may be feeling this way and while I found a variety of people suffering from similar things to what I was going through, I really never stopped to analyze what would be causing this domino of effects. I should note that I also stopped working out completely for about 2 or 3 weeks and I stopped eating like I normally did because I went into a semi- state of depression due to not knowing what was wrong with me. After week 3 I returned to the gym because I couldn’t handle being at home and thinking of being sick and nothing helping my situation. I went back to my old style of volume training and started to pack on muscle and my lifts starting going up shortly week by week but my symptoms of constantly feeling out of it and fatigued still lingered. When I hit the 2 month mark in June everything was getting worse so I went to the ER due to Symptoms of:
    Fatigue, Feeling spaced out 24/7 while wired at the same time (almost like I’m on edge and can’t relax), constant shortness of breath, indigestion, sensitivity to light, developed a pale white tongue with scalloped pie crust appearance to it on the edges, excessive thirst with dry mouth upon wakening, dark under eye circles (started after not getting good sleep), hair falling out and more noticeable in the shower and a strong heartbeat that shakes my body when I’m at rest.
    I had a battery of tests done including a Metabolic panel, Cortisol AM, TSH, STD, HIV, B12, Chest x-ray, EKG and the list goes on but they all came back fine and told me it was all in my head.
    Around the 4 month mark there was one trend I noticed that I considered a breakthrough, although it was so subtle and never thought it could possibly be contributing to all my current symptoms. Throughout my whole battle with my condition I noticed that I was never hitting “DEEP SLEEP.” You know. The kind you get when you knock the F out and wake up feeling refreshed like a baby. Throughout my whole time dealing with this I was never hitting Deep Restorative 3-4 stage sleep. Sleep deprivation can make you feel Drowsy, unable to concentrate, brain fog, which is exactly what I feel. During the beginning I would sleep but not hit deep sleep and as time went by I would only hit REM sleep and dream all day which made me feel extremely exhausted throughout the day. I only ever get 4-6 hours of sleep per day because I wake up before 8am daily. I didn’t realize this until I caught myself being jolted awake whenever I was tired and wanted to take a quick nap. I dream every night and never hit deep sleep. And some nights I wake up at 2-3 AM and find it hard to go back to sleep and then when I do finally knock out, I wake up in the morning before my alarm clock goes off. I can’t take naps like I used to or sleep whenever I want because every time I want to sleep my body seems to twitch and wake me up and I feel like I’m gassed for a lack of air but the feeling Is more like I’m on edge and can’t seem to relax. I also wake up with a numb hand sometimes but that may be due to the fact that I might be sleeping on it? Not sure, but what I’m finally trying to get at is that do you think that I could have fried my CNS and induced overtraining or overreaching that lead to the development of Insomnia? Other possibilities could be sleep apnea, hypothyroid, silent GERD or god knows what that is disrupting my sleep. Please help me as I am really starting to feel helpless. Keep in mind in the time frame that I returned to the gym I was still increasing in size and my strength was the strongest that I’ve ever been in my life but I feel as if I’m running on pure adrenaline or fight or flight. People also compliment me in the gym telling me that I look great and I’m getting bigger. If I’m not mistaken isn’t overtraining supposed to be completely opposite as to what I’m able to do in the gym? My lifts have not plateaued, I am never in pain, I am not losing weight (mainly stalled) or getting sick but compared to other years of training when I was able to sleep I recall my muscles looking more full, defined and now they seem more flat and don’t grow as fast because growth hormone and most recovery happens during deep sleep. I should mention that during the time I was running the new strength training program I was dealing with Life stress in all aspects (finance, school, work and personal life) so maybe my body couldn’t handle that paired with the physical stress of a new training program? I read on a forum that someone that over trained and had stress in their life at the same time gave them insomnia and they had to take 6 weeks off training to recover and start hitting deep sleep again, so as of now I have stopped training and will do so until I hopefully see signs of recovery because this feeling is something I would not wish upon anyone. I greatly appreciate the time you took to read this because I have become desperate for a solution, any thoughts or input would be greatly appreciated.
    A bit more info: I drink plenty of water daily and do not use steroids, pre workouts or any stimulants, as my only form of supplementation is BCAAs, Protein, and Creatine. I have also been trying to take it easy and de-stress lately but training was constant and now discontinuing to see if body needs rest.
    I am also having a sleep study done august 25th to rule out sleep apnea or other sleeping disorders.

    TLDR; Can over training induce insomnia? Have you been through it? Have you gotten over it? What were your symptoms? How did you fix it?

    • Hello there very deep reading your story as i went througj exactly the same thing for nearly 6 months. I ended up in hospital having drs test me for all types of disorders…yet everything came back fine….so after yet another 2 months of being to the hospital and various drs no one could determine what was wrong. Turns out it was hypoglycaemia. Where youre exercising so much that your carb in take ends up being to low and your body cannot maky glycogen to fuel your muscle’s and immune system, so for the first 2 weeks i had to eat simple sugars. I was not allowed to exercise until that brain fog feeling went away. It worked for me now before i gym i will eat/ drink simple carbs. I am not saying you have the same problem, its just no one suspected to check my sugar levels early in the morning. I hope you start feeling beter soon. I know your pain.

      • Could you tell more about your symptoms please.

        I think, I have the same problem, I feel very terrible, dehydrated, loss of appetite, feel tired esp. in the morning, diarrhea, leaky gut, half of my upper body esp. head left side stings, thinning hair and I can keep it on…

        Please let me know how did you feel that time

    • I had a similar problem. My body and mind was not feeling normal. I was depressed and worn out. What seemed to be my problem was a doctor had told me my vitamin b12 was low. Took some shots and then some pills for it and it worked after some time. Now I feel great and not like I was getting old. A lot of people don’t pay attention to this. Hope this helps.

    • Hi, my training intensity is no where near yours but i suffered similar symptoms of interrupted where. For nearly 1 year i only do moderate intensity program for about 1 hour for 6 days with 1 day walk for 1.5hour. I managed to shed 15lbs and not satisfied with the result so i increase the intensity and duration to 1.5hr or at least 80mins. Not no after this changes, ive noticed i have trouble sleeping and would wake up every 2-3 hrs, then doze to again for 2-3 hrs and up again, my mood and bahaviour became irritable, im losing my memory and depress apetite. Luckily i picked up these abnormalities at early stage so i decreased my training intensity to 1 day high for 60mins follow by 2 days moderate intensity of 60mins and 1 day 1.5hr walk and the program repeat it self. With this adjustment, i now sleep at my normal pattern, and by 11pm i tired. I guess every one is different, what works for me doesn’t necessary work for you. So you need to gradually chop and change your routine and assess the outcome of the changes. You will definitely feel the outcome of the changes, if you feel chopping and changing didn’t do much then chop and change a bit more and soon you will feel it before you know it. I HOPE THIS HELP. good luck.

    • Maybe you are magnesium deficient. I would definitely take 400mg magnesium amino-acid chelate daily if I were you. It might be something else entirely, but it’s worth trying. Check out the symptoms for magnesium deficiency and it might surprise you.

    • Hi Dustin. I have the same symptoms and want to ask you if is any news about your recovery? I tried a lot of things but the most disturbing is that I can’t rest and recover completely.

      I wake up at 3 am in morning and stay awake for 2-3 hours and finally when I fell asleep I have to wake up after 1 hour and fell dizzy and lethargic.

      Anyone who find a solution for this?

      Thanks a lot.