Sunday, January 2, 2011

Don't exercise too much

There has been a theme in a few things I've been reading and listening too recently about the dangers of over-exercising.  It is an issue that comes up fairly regularly in Robb Wolf's podcasts where they warn of the dangers of overtraining, especially on "Crossfit" style routines where there are no planned back off weeks or periodisation.

Anyway, crashed out yesterday reading the Guardian magazine in one of those New Year sort your life out articles, these paragraphs caught my eye:

Exercise only in moderation

The two key terms for energy researchers in 2010 have been BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) and VEGF (vascular endothelial growth factor): BDNF stimulates the formation of new connections between brain cells; and VEGF produces new blood vessel-lining cells, potentially keeping the arteries free of flaws that are the potential sites of clots, and therefore preventing heart attacks and strokes.

Regular exercise increases levels of both, so it should be good for you – but there's a snag: too much exercise lowers BDNF levels. Does that have a damaging effect on brain cells? We don't yet know, but anecdotal evidence of the breakdown in health of athletes and enthusiasts who train to near-exhaustion every day tends to suggest that it does.

The main message, then, is to give your body time to recover after exercise. The current advice is to exercise to breathlessness (it doesn't matter what you do – anything you continue to enjoy) for around 30 minutes, and avoid exercising more than three or four times a week.

Do something....but not too much.


Craig "Chops" Zielinski said...


Less is most definitely more. Having finally calmed myself in to a patient state of consistent, effective, periodised, goal-oriented and most importantly, understated training, I have made the best progress of my life. Finally. Damn. Wish I was 10 years younger.

Scientific, anecdotal, or otherwise, the only evidence I need is N=1. It works for me and when I hear it suggested to or suggest it to others, it works for them too.

Except for Welbourn, who has to train ALL THE TIME FOREVER.

Chris Sturdy said...

This is so true. I mainly keep my exercise log to ensure that I don't overdo things. My typical week consists of:

- One 50 minute yoga session.
- One 15-20 minute swim
- One weight/bodyweight session of < 30 min
- Easy-paced walking for recovery and relaxation

I used to also sprint every about 10 days but a wonky knee has hampered that since about June. Now I usually turn the swim into a swim sprint workout to really get the heart working. Those sessions are 15 minutes max.

If you don't include the time spent walking, I would estimate my total 'exercise' time per week to be < 2 hrs and at 39 yo I am in the best condition of my life.

Thanks for the great post - I have already shared it to twitter and facebook. Hopefully more people who are either currently overdoing it or just starting out on a program will see it and take things easy in 2011.


Chris said...

Thanks Chris

Craig....i wish I had those 10 or 20 years back too. Reading Hardgainer magazine 15 years ago I probably knew all I needed to!

rob said...

What if you exercise not for the health benefits, but because you enjoy it?

I spend a lot more time in the gym than Paleos, because to me my time in the gym is the best part of my day ... if I cut my workout down from an hour and twenty minutes to thirty minutes maybe in the long run it would be healthier, but in the meantime I would be depriving myself of the most enjoyable part of my life.

I don't lift weights because I want to live to be 100, I lift weights because I enjoy lifting weights.

Devin said...

I am not sure how true this is. Look at one of many examples... Miko Salo. Fittest man in the world (for 09) and he works out 5x/day crossfit style. How can this be explained?

I have never heard of him having anything wrong serious enough to ward too much exercise a bad thing. Likewise, I myself workout 2-3x/day for a long time, and feel great.

I have always wondered what the deal is with the rest/stress. The best I can come up with is "it depends on the person". You can build yourself up to handle certain loads.

The two elements given in the article are no-where near "enough" (in my opionion) to claim too much exercise is bad. I wish it was so I could finally get an answer, but its not.

Thanks for taking a crack at this topic, it always makes me wonder!

Some Guy said...

I am adopting this style of exercising less but with more intensity. Less is more makes sense to me and leaves more time to do other things.


rob said...

On Paleo blogs there tend to be comments about how the brief workout leaves you more time to do other stuff ... what is the other stuff?

If you have so many things going on that spending a couple of hours a day exercising is too much ... maybe you need to reconsider the whole thing .. how are you spending your days?

I think the "intensity" fad has a lot of positive things going for it, I have incorporated a lot of it into my own workouts ... but the race to get your exercise done in the shortest possible amount of time is silly.

It's like in "Something About Mary" when Ben Stiller picks up the crazy hitchhiker whose grand idea is to counter the "Seven Minute Ab Workout" video with the "Six Minute Ab Workout" video ... seriously is taking a few extra minutes to exercise that much of a cramp in your lifestyle?

There is a machine being marketed that promises you a total body workout in four minutes ... is that the Holy Grail?

There will come a day in all our lives when we would be willing to give ANYTHING to be able to spend an hour in a gym exercising free from pain and ailments ... a day when your knees ache and your shoulders hurt and your back is sore ... don't be in such a hurry to do other things.

Chris said...


There are a number of things I could say in response. I suppose one thing is that by exercising less you may be able to avoid all those injuries (often caused by overuse and bad form) that you seem to be looking forward to in the future. You do not have to look forward to a future of bad backs, sore shoulders and injured knees.

Other stuff? Read a book. Climb a mountain. Learn a martial art. Spend time with your parents or children. Develop some skills. Sleep. Whatever. Yes there is fun in training but you need to moderate it sometimes and also to recognise that too much is not healthy.

Too much exercise is bad for you on a lot of levels, mechanically and hormonally. Read Mark Sisson on Chronic Cardio for example. The stress is bad for your body. It is not natural to exercise at extreme intensity so often. We need rest, play, easy times. There is a sweet spot.

Gym said...

I agree over-exercising is bad for your health, people think that the more the exercise the better which is not the case because it is quality of the training that it counts rather than it duration or frequency.Also our muscles needs to rest so its good to take some breaks between exercising.

Robin said...

"exercise to breathlessness (it doesn't matter what you do – anything you continue to enjoy) for around 30 minutes, and avoid exercising more than three or four times a week."

While that may work for some people, I don't see why that should be the optimal prescription for everyone. For one thing, there's no way to gain proficiency in anything by doing it 3 - 4 times a week for 30 minutes at a time. I'm currently training in the martial arts (karate) and I can tell you that there's no way you could reasonably progress with that little training. Ditto with swimming (which I coach). Proficiency and mastery take many hours of hard work on a near-daily basis.

Many of the longest-lived people I've known did hours and hours of hard physical work for much of their lives. My great-grandmother lived to be 100, and if you read her memoirs, she is working her body hard for hours each and every day: hauling water, churning butter, beating laundry on a rock, walking 6 miles to school in the snow, etc. etc. I go to swim meets and see swimmers in their 70's, 80's, even 90's. There's a gentleman in our conference that competed in the Olympics 50 years ago and is still swimming, and still setting AG records!

I think you can definitely overtrain, especially with intensity like Crossfit, or chronic cardio like running. But if you keep a variety of intensity, duration, speed, endurance, strength, etc. and keep your body well-fueled and well-rested, there's no reason you can't work your body fairly hard on most days, all the time without any detrimental effects.

I'm on my 25th year of being an ongoing athlete in one sport or another (swimming, triathlon, climbing, skydiving, judo, karate, kickboxing, Crossfit, etc.), and so far seem healthier than almost anyone I know. I rarely get sick, have no injuries, fatigue, or problems due to my sports. So I'm not sure I buy that all of this is bad for you. Exactly when is it supposed to be a problem?

Chris Wilson said...

@Robin, Rob, etc.
There are two basic rejoinders here:
1) there is a lot of inter-individual variation in how much exercise is tolerable and how much is healthful. It depends on sleep, rest, nutrition other demands, plus genetics to some degree.
2) There is a difference between an amount of *formal* exercise that is *healthful* and an amount that can be *tolerated* (aka "gotten away with") for some period of time.

Lots of people survive a long time on demanding, high-volume regimens, but that doesn't mean they wouldn't be better off with more moderation.

Case closed.

Train well, enjoy life, and be happy!