In today’s culture, it’s rare to hear someone talk about the dangers of over-exercising.
Normally, we are exhorted to exercise as long and as hard as we can, so that we can burn as many calories as possible. We are told to do cardio for no less than 30 minutes, and it’s better to do it for at least 60.
We are told to do it every day, and if we are the most hardcore, we do it twice.
(And then we get to brag about it later over drinks!)
But over-exercise is a real, even scary problem, especially for women.
Why Over-exercise is a problem for women especially
The female body it capable of giving birth. This is a miraculous, fabulous thing.
Yet it is also a potentially dangerous thing. Pregnancy is a very stressful, demanding time for the mother’s body. Without sufficient energy, nutrients, and safety from the surrouding environment (say, not being in a state of famine or war), ancestral women often suffered unsafe, malnourished pregnancies.
In order to prevent a life-threatening pregnancy, therefore, the female body developed systems that are highly sensitive to stress or energy deficits. When stress or restriction is detected, reproduction shuts down. This protects women from becoming pregnant at a time that might threaten their lives and the lives of their babies.
Over-exercise occurs in women more easily than in men exactly because of this sensitivity. It is a protective mechanism, designed to make sure they only get pregnant at safe times.
It is also, unfortunately, a big hassle for women trying to achieve health and hormone balance in today’s environment.
The problem with today’s environment
The problem with today’s environment is that exercise is not only valued, but is exalted beyond good reason.
The more you do, the better, they say. And if you don’t do it much, shame on you, because that means you’re fat and lazy and don’t deserve to feel sexy or healthy.
And so we exercise and exercise and exercise, run and run and run. At least I know I did. At the height of my fitness life, I was lifting weights and running about 15 miles a day, every day. I thought that that was normal.
Women were supposed to train like that, I thought, if they wanted to be worthy.
Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.
Signs of over-exercising
Do you over-exercise? Here are some potential signs of over-exercise:
1. Requiring yourself to exercise even when you don’t feel like it
If you have to force yourself to exercise, you may be doing it too much.
Forcing yourself to exercise when you don’t feel like it elevates stress hormone levels. If you do this on a regular basis it will over-fatigue you and you will become chronically tired (and likely sluggish and overweight) in the long-run.
It also indicates that your body isn’t well rested enough after your last bout of exercise and/or stress in order to perform well again.
If you’re feeling too fatigued to work out, consider taking a brief nap, then doing some lunges or push ups later in the day instead. Studies show that brief, intense exercises spaced throughout the day may be even more effective than one long work-out.
Perhaps it goes without saying, but if you find yourself performing less and less well during workouts, this is another sign that your muscles and your hormones are too fatigued to keep up at this pace.
3. Post-workout exhaustion
If you fall into a nap or are otherwise super fatigued at the end of a workout, this means you needed to use way too much of your energetic reserves while working out. Without any good stress hormones or energy floating around in your system, you will crash after a workout.
Make up for this by taking some more off days, or alternating between high effort and lower effort workouts.
4. Missed or irregular menstrual periods
If you find that your menstrual period has become longer or gone absent entirely while exercising a lot, the stressful demands of the exercise coupled with the caloric deficit may be to blame.
You may be able to help alleviate this problem by making sure you eat more – especially after workouts – but I highly recommend cutting back on the exercise by at least half as well.
5. Low libido
While there are many causes of low libido, the stress that comes from over-exercise very well may be one of them.
6. Feeling cold, thinning hair, brittle nails, constipation
Feeling cold, thinning hair, brittle nails, and constipation are all signs of hypothyroidism, which is one of the most common results of over-exercise.
In fact, if you over-exercise at all, hypothyroidism is a very serious risk.
You can read about some of the other indicators of hypothyroidism in my post 19 Indicators You May Be Hypothyroid – yet I really do caution you to be wary of hypothyroidism from excess exercise whether you have some indicators or not. When the female body gets stressed or thinks it may be starving, the thyroid gland is one of the very first systems that shuts down.
7. Excessive soreness or slow muscle recovery
If you find that you are sore for a long time or cannot recover or build muscle well, then you may not be giving your body the time it needs to re-build. Exercise is a very serious stress that tears muscles apart.
Muscles absolutely require time and nutrients in order to re-build themselves to their optimal strength.
8. You get sick easily
Under chronic stress, the immune system falters. If you find that you are chronically under the weather while you constantly exercise, you may wish to ramp down and see if that helps your body recover more quickly.
Hormones are a key player in acne, and they can become significantly out of balance (with male hormones out-producing female hormones) if you over-exercise.
This acne is typically cystic, and appears most commonly around the mouth and jaw, though can also be on the cheeks, forehead, upper back, and buttocks.
This is a very real, significant problem for a lot of female athletes (go to your local cross fit box and you might find what I’m talking about.) If you work out a lot and you struggle with this kind of acne, make sure that you refuel properly, and consider cutting back significantly to give your hormones a break.
Here is a post on hormones and female acne.
If you find that you have increased cravings throughout the day and cannot seem to satisfy them no matter what you do, excessive exercise (and quite possibly under-eating) may be to blame.
The more you starve your body, the more it is going to try to make you eat, especially with high energy, super tasty sweet tooth foods.
How much should you exercise?
Of course, every person has a sweet spot, for how much exercise is good for them. I cannot give you a hard and fast number for how much is too much.
For some women, for example, even one work out a day is too many (especially if it is a hard work out). This may be the case if you have a history of dieting and over-exercising, if you’ve been over-exercising for a long time, if you under-eat, or if you are going through a stressful period in your life.
Other women may be able to easily tolerate one work out a day… at least for a while.
I generally recommend that women do no more than 4 really hard sprint or weight lifting work outs a week. That doesn’t mean that you cannot exercise in the meantime, but super hard workouts should always be followed by a rest day.
This is optimal for your muscles, optimal for your thyroid gland, and, in the end, optimal for your energy and waistline, because you are protecting your body’s ability to maintain both of them healthfully and happily.
Ultimately I cannot say how much is too much for anybody – but I do hope that this list has helped. I simply recommend that you remain mindful of the signs of overexercising… and start dialing back ASAP if you see them.
And… as ever, please let me know what you think! What works for you, what have your experiences been… I want to know everything!!
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