Exercise is good for us. We know that it improves skeletal muscles and cardiovascular health, and it decreases our chances of the onset of lifestyle-related illness and disease. Exercise is also good for the mind, both as a way to get over a bad day at work, but also for mental health. Exercise is also incredibly ironic: it has the power to either contribute to improved overall health and well-being, or be a major contributing factor to one’s inflammatory response, injury, and illness. Even though you’ll never regret a run or that tough WOD, you will regret the injury and illness caused by how often and how hard you train.
Continued exposure to high levels of cortisol is insulinogenic – it stimulates the release of insulin in the body, which you don’t want. Over-exercising and stress would most certainly also result in adrenal fatigue or dysfunction…
Fitness enthusiasts seem to favour frequent high intensity exercise because people assume it’s the road to improved fitness and, what Mark Sisson calls – ‘look good naked.’ Whether it’s an intense CrossFit workout of the day, an hour long interval session with your running club, or that Metafit class at your gym it seems people are all about sweating profusely, working until they’re exhausted and out of breath, and burning more calories than they consumed. And they do this often. Unfortunately, despite their good intentions this frequent, high volume, high intensity exercise can not only do the exact opposite of what people hope – weight loss, improved overall health, changes in body fat and musculature – but it will also create a toxic environment in their bodies. Furthermore, high intensity physical activity only burns carbs, not fat, which is counterproductive if you’re using exercise as a weight loss strategy. Oh the irony!
Additionally exercise leads to inflammation within the body. This is good if it’s in the acute, post-workout phase, but bad if it becomes chronic through constant training without rest and recovery. In the short term, inflammation resulting from exercise is necessary because it contributes to increased muscle mass, stamina, and overall strength – the benefits we hope for when we train and workout. Long term inflammation, leading to compromised immunity and injury, is caused by too much for too long with no breaks in between.1
The final irony in exercise is that many see it as a stress-reliever, when actually it’s incredibly stressful on the body, where it elicits the fight or flight response2 – our body’s hormonal reaction to perceived threats. To our caveman ancestors, threats were wild, predatory animals attacking and tribal conflict, which triggered the fight or flight response allowing them to survive. Today, our modern ‘threats’ aren’t threatening at all. While rush hour traffic, deadlines at work, and interpersonal conflicts aren’t a matter of life or death, they do create a shedload of emotional stress. Combine this with even more added stress from too much, too intense physical activity, and you have a recipe for some pretty powerful negative effects.3
The result of too much training, sweating, and frequency of physical activity can be profound. To you, it would look like frequent illness, a result of this continuous stress compromising your immune system. You would have chronic injuries, which you might try to minimise as ‘niggles’ just so you can continue to stay active. You may notice that, despite your all too frequent efforts, you’re not losing weight, and perhaps all that muscle you’ve built is now actually starting to diminish despite regular physical activity. On the inside this stress compromises endocrine function, sending your sex hormones, human growth hormone, and cortisol levels all out of whack.4 Continued exposure to high levels of cortisol is insulinogenic – it stimulates the release of insulin in the body, which you don’t want. Over-exercising and stress would most certainly also result in adrenal fatigue or dysfunction, which has several recogniseable symptoms. 3 Finally, too much exercise and training combined with emotional stresses can result in the dreaded Over Training Syndrome (OTS), a very complex, individualised illness that can be career-ending for elite athletes,5 but also lead to an extended period of complete inactivity in us recreational athletes. If you deal with fatigue on a daily basis, frequent illness, mysterious joint pain that no medical professional can diagnose, a decline in performance, and increased breathing rate – among other symptoms – then you may have adrenal fatigue and have fallen prey to OTS.6
For the competitive lot, too much high-volume training, or training to continuous peaks rather than peaks and valleys, as well as frequent racing with little to no rest and recovery will also produce the above-mentioned symptoms and conditions.
And don’t think you can still exercise like a fiend because you eat a well-formulated Paleo diet. No amount of good, clean, real food is going to cleanse your body of the toxins produced by excessive stress. You need a massive stress and exercise overhaul.
Despite this heavy dose of exercise doom and gloom, there is good news. You can get over all the negative physiological effects of too much exercise, and continue on the path to vitality. You just need to know how to exercise properly, and I don’t mean with good technique. You need to adopt a more primal approach to training:
- Instead of excessive high intensity cardio try slowing down to easy pace. I personally employ the 180 Formula for my running, and I’ve been able to improve on all my race times without injury.
- High intensity cardio is fine only once and a while – try every seven to ten days in the form of sprinting. Even uphill!
- Continue lifting weights and CrossFit, but don’t always go for high intensity, heavy loads, and long workouts; change it up often. Even try bodyweight exercises.
- Finally, listen to your body – if you’re feeling tired, stressed, overwhelmed, or pressured in any way the last thing you should do is bring more stress to a workout.
This isn’t reinventing the exercise wheel; rather it’s going back to the way we were meant to move, not the way we think we should. Both Mark Sisson and Phil Maffetone, among other Paleo fitness specialists, are promoting this type of exercise for maximal fitness and vitality with minimal stress and volume. Once you learn to balance it with the stresses of life, it’ll feel like second nature. It’ll feel like we were meant to do it.
So is exercise your stressor or stress reliever? Why not let us know your thoughts by using the comments box below.
- Sisson, M. (2012). The Relationship Between Exercise and Inflammation (and What It Means for Your Workouts). In Mark’s Daily Apple. Retrieved 2 December, 2015 from http://www.marksdailyapple.com/the-relationship-between-exercise-and-inflammation-and-what-it-means-for-your-workouts/#ixzz3tCM08xxe
- Sisson, M. (2008). The Definitive Guide to Stress, Cortisol, and the Adrenals: When ‘Fight or Flight’ Meets the Modern World. In Mark’s Daily Apple. Retrieved 2 December, 2015 from http://www.marksdailyapple.com/cortisol/#ixzz3tCLSf1en
- Maffetone, P. (2015). Simplifying Stress. In MAF. Retrieved 2 December, 2015 from http://philmaffetone.com/stress/
- Sisson, M. (2012). The Primal Blueprint. London, UK: Vermilion.
- Brown, M. (2015). Running On Empty. In Outside Online. Retrieved 2 December, 2015 from http://www.outsideonline.com/1986361/running-empty
- Cordain, L., Friel, J. (2012). The Paleo Diet for Athletes. Pennysylvania, USA: Rodale Books Inc.