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Are You Getting Too Much Exercise?

People running marathon depicting 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.

Of course, getting regular physical activity is a vital component of health. Exercise is needed for healthy immune and endocrine systems, gut function and motility, hormone function, maintenance of blood sugar levels, detoxification, a healthy brain, proper sleep, weight control, eliminating cravings for sugar and carbs, reducing sympathetic dominance, and good mental health.

Exercise enhances insulin sensitivity as demonstrated by its lowering of hemoglobin A1c and glucose levels. It activates genes that produce antioxidants, suppresses inflammation, and boost detoxification. Exercise can increase the brain’s memory center and enable neurons to be more agile and more efficient with multitasking. It activates BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which helps construct new neurons and neuronal networks and control appetite. Mild to moderate exercise has been shown to stimulate the vagal nerve activity that stimulates gastric motility and to enhance the stomach’s processing of food.

However, it is critical that exercise be mild to moderate, not too excessive or undertaken for extended periods of time. Too much exercise disrupts neurotransmitter balance, elevates histamine levels, weakens immune function, increases blood sugar levels, causes inflammation, and triggers the stress-response system.

Most of the recommendations made by mainstream exercise experts are counterproductive and sometimes destructive. Many people find that having a trainer like Jillian Michaels snarling and barking at you like a drill sergeant is abusive and not conducive to long-lasting healing. You may make some weight-loss goals by being shamed into submission, but the results probably won’t last. Follow up with the contestants who participated in the Biggest Loser television show, has demonstrated that the majority of these individuals (13 out of 14) gained back most, if not all, of the weight they lost. Exercise that is good for you does not have to be so difficult or involve browbeating.

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 high 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?

In P. A. C. E. The 12-Minute Fitness Revolution, Dr. Al Sears presents research that demonstrates prolonged duration exercise of any kind (e.g., traditional aerobics, cardio, or long-distance running) 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 a wide variety of other chronic degenerative health conditions.

Dr. Arthur Siegel states “the “inflammatory storm” triggered by the stress of running a marathon creates all the symptoms of heart disease.” Marathon runners have an increased risk for heart attack, blood in urine, hardening of the arteries, lower back pain, repetitive stress injuries, permanent bone injury, stress fractures, and sudden cardiac death.

Excess Exercise Boosts Stress Hormones

Aerobics, jogging, marathon running, triathlons, 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 stress response system is activated and 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.

Mark Sisson, former elite endurance athlete, fitness expert, and author of The Primal Blueprint, explains “chronic cardio places excessive and prolonged physical stress on your body, leading to fat, injuries, compromised immune function and burnout. Sometimes less is more.”

Dr. Al Sears also states, in regard to repeated sessions of cardio that “this type of continuous challenge simulates episodes of prolonged stress from our once-native hunter environment. It induces short-term survival strategies. But if you stay in survival mode too long it’s very destructive.”

Severe stress leads to depletion of neurotransmitters, disrupted hormones, an increase in blood sugar levels and insulin response, weakened immunity, an increase in free radicals, an increase in appetite and cravings for sugar and carbs, and perpetuates sympathetic nervous system dominance. High-intensity exercise also releases histamine, which can contribute to excess histamine in the individual with this problem, so this needs to be monitored as well if you are dealing with this issue.

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 lead to a balance of 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 Disrupts Neurotransmitters

As we established previously, excessive exercise is an extreme form of stress. Inhibitory neurotransmitters like GABA, dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins are used to counteract the effects of stress. If there are high levels of stress from a lot of exercise, then inhibitory neurotransmitter levels will get used up very quickly, which can lead to a depletion in these critical substances that are essential for moderating mood, energy, pain, memory, thought, perception, behavior, and appetite.

On the other hand, high levels of stress cause an elevation in excitatory neurotransmitters like norepinephrine, histamine, and glutamate.

An imbalance of inhibitory and excitatory neurotransmitters lead to depression, anxiety, pain, fatigue, lack of concentration, poor memory, irritability, cravings for carbs, sugar, and caffeine or other addictive substances like drugs and alcohol and a reduced capacity to deal with stress.

Physical Activity vs Exercise Routine

Recent research suggests that simply being more physically active throughout the day is much more important than engaging in a formal exercise routine. A study appearing in the Annals of Internal Medicine looked at the results of more than forty other studies that assessed the risk of disease and early death in people from two different groups— those who sit for long periods of time and those who don’t—and the effect of exercise on each group. The researchers discovered that the people who sat for long periods of time, even if they exercised vigorously, were about 16 percent more likely to die from any cause than people who didn’t sit for long periods of time.

Another study from the National Cancer Institute followed 240,000 people, ages fifty to seventy-one, for eight and a half years. None of the subjects had cancer or heart disease when they entered the study. At the end of the study, it was found that the people who were sedentary over seven hours per day, even if they exercised daily, had a “61 percent higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease and a 22 percent higher risk of dying from cancer” in comparison to people who were sedentary for less than an hour per day. If they didn’t exercise at all, then the risk of dying from all causes increased by 47 percent and the risk of developing cardiovascular disease increased by 100 percent. This suggests that sitting, regardless of whether you exercise regularly, increases your risk of disease and death, and a vigorous exercise routine does not counteract the effects of sitting all day. Several other studies have confirmed the same.

Dr. Joan Vernikos, former director of NASA’s Life Sciences Division and author of Sitting Kills, Moving Heals, says there is an easy solution to this problem. In an interview with Dr. Joseph Mercola, she states, “The key is to make sure you move your body frequently throughout the day.” The simple act of standing up from a seated position and then sitting back down has been found to be particularly effective at counteracting the detrimental health effects of sitting for too long. Dr. Vernikos explains that the human body deteriorates much more quickly in an antigravity environment, which is imitated by sitting for long periods of time. Physical activities such as bending down and standing up increase “the force of gravity on your body.” By frequently standing up and moving around you alter the antigravity environment that causes cellular degeneration.

That said, standing up over and over at one time is not nearly as effective as standing up intermittently throughout the day. Even standing up once per hour is more effective than walking on a treadmill for fifteen minutes. Repeatedly sitting down and standing up for thirty-two minutes was not as beneficial as standing up thirty-two times throughout the course of the day. (Other research has backed this up.) The standing up (interruption of sitting) needs to be spread out over the entire day. The “key to counteracting the ill effects of sitting is to repeatedly interrupt your sitting—frequent intermittent interactions with gravity.”

Dr. Vernikos also points out that sitting isn’t bad for us in and of itself; it is “uninterrupted” sitting that is bad for us. We aren’t designed to sit continuously. However, standing all the time wouldn’t be good for us either. Remaining on one’s feet for long periods can cause negative health consequences as well. It is the “interruption” of the sitting and the change in posture that is good for us.

Structure your life so that your exercise is naturally built into your day. Be more physically active by increasing your daily “nonexercise” activities. Walk to the mailbox, get up to change the channel on the TV, take the stairs instead of the elevator, park farther away from the store, wash the dishes by hand instead of loading them in the dishwasher, use the bathroom upstairs. Again, it’s not exercise that is important; it is intermittent movement performed continuously throughout the day. You can add some form of structured exercise to your active routine if you like, depending on your needs. Any formal exercise that you engage in should be enjoyable and pleasant, not something you dread.

Some good types of low-impact exercise include walking, tai chi, yoga, and qigong. Jumping on a mini trampoline for a short period of time is a great high-intensity option that will boost the immune and lymphatic systems, enhance elimination of toxins, and improve metabolism.

All exercise routines and physical activity should be gauged according to your body and your health status at any given time. A healthy person has different abilities than an individual with a chronic health condition, and your abilities will vary depending on where you are in the healing journey. This is especially true if you have adrenal fatigue. Exercising too often, for too long, or too intensely can prevent your adrenals from healing and possibly cause further deterioration. Do not push yourself too hard. If you are incapable of doing any structured exercise, that is okay; just stay active as described. Do what your body feels capable of and nothing more. As your health improves, you can increase the amount of exercise you engage in as you see fit. If you feel worse after exercising, then you have pushed too hard. Cut back as far as you need to feel comfortable.

Adrenal fatigue becomes even more common in menopausal and postmenopausal women, largely because the adrenals have taken on the job of producing sex hormones, which used to be the job of the ovaries. Since many women have adrenals that are overworked due to the demands of their lives, this hormonal change often pushes the adrenals over the edge. In addition, the adrenals naturally put out fewer hormones as we age. Hormonal changes may affect a woman’s insulin sensitivity, even if she is eating a good paleo/primal diet. A woman who has no problem with insulin resistance prior to menopause may suddenly develop it in response to hormonal changes. Her ability to handle carbohydrates may change with menopause, causing weight gain. For example, in my younger years I could get away with frequent cheating on carbohydrates without any consequences to my weight, but now I can’t consume more than 50 grams a day or I gain weight at an alarming rate. A woman who experiences this change might increase her exercise, only to find that exercising harder and more often drains the adrenal glands and drives more fat storage. Instead, exercising properly and maybe less often, cutting carbs, and supporting the adrenal glands is what is needed.

An excellent source for learning how to exercise properly (as well as learning more about primal living) can be found in the book The Primal Blueprint, by Mark Sisson. He writes, and I agree, “Best results come when your exercise routine is unstructured and intuitive and workout choices are aligned with your energy and motivation levels. Always allow for sufficient recovery and pursue goals that are fun and inspiring.”

In Summary

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

Our early ancestors never engaged in physical exercise for the sake of exercise; instead, their exercise came from the demands of their lifestyle. Survival required that they engage in frequent physical activity while building shelter, hunting, gathering, preparing food, making tools, and moving from one location to another. They were very active, but the majority of the time they were moving slowly. Occasionally they engaged in heavy lifting and short bursts of intensity. For example, when they ran from a predator or chased down their meal or carried rocks, but anytime they engaged in hard labor or intense physical exertion it was followed by rest and recovery. They did not run marathons or engage in hours-long intense workouts or perform continuous exertion.

Because this is the manner in which human beings lived for millions of years, we evolved genetically and became wired to function best with these types of physical activities. To achieve optimal health we should mimic the patterns of our ancestors. Since we no longer have to design and construct our own homes, hunt for and gather food, and escape predators, we need to build similar activities into our days. We should move a lot, but the majority of the movement should be low intensity (e.g., walking, yoga, tai chi), and it should be interspersed with occasional short bursts of high-intensity movement and heavy lifting (e.g., sprints, weight lifting, swimming). Choosing light or moderate exercise can provide greater physical, mental and spiritual health benefits.

References

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.

Madelyn Fernstrom. “The Biggest Loser Contestants Gain Again.” May 3, 2016. http://www.today.com/health/biggest-loser-contestants-gain-again-why-weight-keeps-coming-back-t90261

Loren Cordain. The Paleo Diet: Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Foods You Were Designed to Eat. Hoboken, NJ. Wiley (2001)

Mark Sisson. The Primal Blueprint: Reprogram Your Genes for Effortless Weight Loss, Vibrant Health and Boundless Energy. Malibu, CA. Primal Nutrition, Inc.; paperback 2nd edition (2012)

A. Biswas, et. al. “Sedentary Time and Its Association With Risk for Disease Incidence, Mortality, and Hospitalization in Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.”

Annals of Internal Medicine 162.2 (2015 http://annals.org/aim/article/2091327/sedentary-time-its-association-risk-disease-incidence-mortality-hospitalization-adults

C. Matthews, et al. “Amount of Time Spent in Sedentary Behaviors and Cause-Specific Mortality in US Adults.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 95.2 (2012) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22218159

Joseph Mercola. “Intermittent Movement Benefits Your Health. Here’s How to Get More of It into Your Work Day.” April 11, 2014. http://fitness.mercola.com/sites/fitness/archive/2014/04/11/intermittent-movement.aspx

Al Sears. “Moving Day is Every Day.” http://www.alsearsmd.com/2015/02/moving-day-is-every-day/

Joseph Mercola. “Sitting Kills, Moving Heals.” June 23, 2013. http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2013/06/23/vernikos-sitting-kills.aspx

Y. Wang, et al. “Vagal Nerve Regulation is Essential for the Increase in Gastric Motility in Response to Mild Exercise.” The Tohoku Journal of Experimental Medicine 222.2 (2010). http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20948179

{ 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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