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Are You Getting Too Much Exercise?

Physical activity is vital for good health, but is it possible to get too much exercise?

Most people believe that those who spend hours at the gym or jogging every day are healthier than others, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Although research in this area is limited, hours of rigorous activity, like that found in traditional cardio and aerobics, seems to work against weight loss efforts and disease prevention.

Are You Getting Too Much Exercise

Could Too Much Exercise Lead to Disease?

A longitudinal study examined the association between exercise and death rates. Researchers separated about 350 men into six groups, ranging from sedentary lifestyles to active men who burned more than 2,500 calories per week.

Those who burned 399 or fewer calories had the highest death rates. It’s significant to note that this group was also the oldest. They also had the highest rates of cardiovascular disease and hight blood pressure. But they weren’t the only ones: the group that burned 2,500 calories or more were right up there with them.

This study suggests that moderate physical activity, not intense exercise, promotes health and disease prevention. But why would this be so?

Excess Exercise Boosts Stress Hormones

Aerobics, jogging, marathon running, or any type of long-duration exercise is completely unnatural and puts your body under extreme stress.

Elevated heart rates caused by physical exertion aren’t necessarily healthy. Put this into an evolutionary context: when would you have an elevated heart rate thousands of years ago? A hungry lion who has you in her sights is ready for lunch? An enemy tribe member is aiming a spear at your head?

It certainly had nothing to do with running on an inclined treadmill.

Your body responds in the same way it has throughout history, not according to modern ideas or technology. A pounding heart means that something stressful is happening, and that means your adrenals are pumping out stress hormones.

Adrenal fatigue, which is the result of your body being in a constant state of stress, causes a host of health problems: weight gain, heart disease, insulin resistance, and depression are several examples.

The adrenaline and endorphin rush created by intense activity is addictive. Those who work out hard on a regular basis become dependent on this hormone burst, which is why they become depressed when injury or other circumstances keep them out of the gym.

Additionally, when we are under stress,  cortisol downregulates the immune system, which means excess exercise weakens immunity significantly and makes you much more vulnerable to illness and disease.

Can Exercise Make You Fat?

When stress hormones become elevated, blood sugar levels also rise. This promotes the production of insulin. If stress hormone levels remain high, which happens when you exert yourself continually, blood sugar levels also remain elevated. Insulin stores sugar into abdominal fat cells no matter how many calories that elliptical machine says you’ve burned.

On the other hand, light and moderate exercise leads to a balance in stress hormones. Walking, Yoga and Tai Chi are excellent activities for adrenal health. You can throw in an occasional sprint and light weight lifting or a few push-ups to simulate activities of our primal ancestors and for muscle strength.

Too Much Exercise Drains Neurotransmitters

Excessive exercise will drain neurotransmitters that are crucial for moderating mood, energy, pain, memory, thought, perception and behavior. Neurotransmitters are used to counteract the effects of stress, if there are high levels of stress from a lot of exercise, then neurotransmitter levels will get used up very quickly, which can result in symptoms like depression, anxiety, pain, fatigue, lack of concentration, poor memory, irritability, cravings for carbs, sugar, caffeine or other addictive substances like drugs and alcohol and a reduced capacity to deal with stress.

Inflammation and More

Other research has found that prolonged duration exercise actually reduces bone mass and increases risk of osteoporosis, increases LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, shrinks muscle mass and sets off a cascade of inflammation and LDL oxidation that causes artery-hardening plague to form in your blood vessels, which can lead to heart disease and wide variety of other chronic degenerative health conditions.

An active lifestyle is no doubt necessary for health and the prevention of disease. However, the intensity and length of your choice of activities is also important. Overexerting yourself with too much exercise can work against your efforts to stay happy and healthy.

Our ancestors engaged in slow activity the majority of the time, with an occasional lifting of heavy things and short burst of intensity, and therefore our bodies are genetically wired to function best with these types of activities. Choosing light or moderate exercise can provide greater physical, mental and spiritual health benefits.


Quinn, TJ, and Et Al. “Caloric Expenditure, Life Status, and Disease in Former Male Athletes and Non-athletes.” Med Sci Sports Exerc. 22.6 (1990): 742-50. Print.

Sears, Al, M.D. PACE: The 12-Minute Fitness Revolution. Wellness Research & Consulting, Inc. 2010. Ebook.

{ 4 comments… add one }

  • Erin August 11, 2016, 9:26 am

    So what is exercising for too long? One hour? Two hours? I have the same question for level of intensity? Do these vary based on the person’s current state of health? I like the article, but it’s too subjective for me to put into practice without obsessing about that unknown tipping point.

  • Admin - Cynthia Perkins August 27, 2016, 12:36 pm

    Yes, Erin it should be based on a person’s state of health. One hour or two hours is definitely too long. A book called The Primal Blueprint will teach you how to exercise in a healthy manner. Check it out. We should move a lot at a slow pace. We should occasionally lift heavy things and sprint. But we should not engage in long endurance. High intensity periods should be brief and followed by rest and recovery.

  • Adam April 20, 2017, 7:54 am

    Hello, you speak about mild exercise with short bursts being able to turn off the sympathetic nervous system. Can you speak more about this exercise in specifics and how bursts of high intensity can promote parasympathetic activity? I’m having a lot of trouble in the gym lately.

  • Admin - Cynthia Perkins May 26, 2017, 6:10 pm

    Hi Adam,

    Short bursts make the body think you have escaped the lion, so it will turn off the stress response. However, if severe adrenal fatigue is present that may be too much. So one must be careful. If you feel worse after exercise, then you have pushed your adrenals too far. Too much time in the gym can be very counterproductive as discussed above. Exercise should be mild and gentle the majority of the time.

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