By Amanda Rode

When it comes to exercise, there tends to be a belief that more is better and you must push yourself hard every workout to achieve any results. While high intensity workouts can have their place in a healthy exercise routine, they should not be an everyday occurrence. Over exercising can cause major stress to ones body and can promote disease.

Exercise is a Stressor

Though exercise can help relieve stress, it is important to remember that many kinds of exercise are also are major source of stress for the body. When intense exercise is undertaken, stress hormones (cortisol, adrenaline) rise in the body similarly to the effect of other stressors (mental, emotional) on the body. While stress hormones are not particularly problematic when they are secreted in short, acute events; chronically elevating stress hormones is another story. The stress hormone Cortisol will cause insomnia, anxiety, belly fat accumulation, blood sugar issues, inflammation and immune depression. High adrenalin levels will place the body in a sympathetic state, which is the flight or fight state. Normally, we should be in a parasympathetic state most of the time. This is the rest and digest state that promotes healing, relaxation and a positive state of well-being. Being in a sympathetic state all the time from over exercising plus stress from everyday life, lack of sleep and too much caffeine is a recipe for disaster. People often get addicted to this state as it gives them pseudo type of energy and euphoric feelings (i.e. “Runners high” or “endorphin rush”). Though these feelings may feel “good” short term and allow us to get stuff done, they are not supportive of long-term health.

Endurance training is especially detrimental . Endurance athletes and runners very commonly will end up with low immune systems and a low thyroid. Excessive cardio exercise has been shown quite clearly to not be good for long-term health . But you can also over do strength training (weight lifting). The central nervous system gets a beating every time you lift heavy weights. You may feel recovered by the absence of sore muscles, but this doesn’t mean your CNS has recovered. The CNS takes longer to recover than your muscles so don’t gage your recovery completely on your level of soreness. In general, exercise should make you feel better, not worse. Its ok to feel a bit sore or tired following a hard workout, but you shouldn’t be in severe pain or be utterly exhausted.

There are a lot of high intensity workout programs that are very popular at the moment. While these have some merits, they also can be counter productive making people believe that they must exercise intensely everyday of the week. Even highly conditioned (and usually genetically blessed) athletes have deload or back off weeks and periodized training (varying training intensity for a specific time frame). Most people these days are sleep deprived and have high levels of stress. The last thing you want is to pound your body (and central nervous system) with intense exercise everyday.

So how do you know if your exercise routine is too much? Check out the following signs and see where you are at:

Signs you are Overtraining:
1. Elevated morning heart rate or excessively low heart rate (over doing cardio can result in a too LOW heart rate). A good heart rate should be around 70-80bpm.
2. Irritability/ nervousness/ anxiety
3. Insomnia
4. Constant muscle aches and joint pain
5. Tendonitis
6. Frequent infections, colds and flues
7. Frequent injuries
8. Inability to lose fat/belly fat
9. Muscle wasting/ inability to gain muscle
10. Cold hands and feet
11. Low sex drive
12. Low motivation
13. Low body temperature (take temperature first thing in the morning before moving out of bed. If its below 98 degrees consistently, it indicates a sluggish thyroid)
14. Low thyroid
15. Hormonal imbalances (usually low testosterone and progesterone levels/ high estrogen)
16. Constipation/ digestion issues

Training Nutrition
Nutrition is a very important part of recovery. Avoid any training on an empty stomach besides very light activity like yoga or walking. Yes, working out on an empty stomach can burn fat effectively but the downside is it also creates cortisol and stresses your adrenal and thyroid glands. Short term you may get results with fasted training, but long term you will likely see rebound fat gain, low thyroid and immune system dysfunction. You are better off putting some fuel in the tank so you can work out effectively. Having some protein and carbs before and after training is very important. Having a smoothie with some milk and/or whey protein powder and fruit or honey or straight up sugar will help build muscle and decrease stress. People are shocked when sugar is recommended as we have been told to avoid it. But sugar is beneficial after training as it helps shuttle the protein into the muscles, supports thyroid health and decreases stress hormones. So don’t be afraid of sugar if you are working out regularly! Also, be sure to add some quality sea salt to your pre and post workout snacks and to all meals. Salt is very important since you lose it when you sweat during exercise. Salt helps lower stress hormones, encourages healthy thyroid function and helps build muscle better than a low salt diet. Just like sugar, salt is not evil and can be your best friend in improving your metabolism and overall health. Make sure you are eating enough calories, including carbs, which is trendy to avoid these days. Long-term low carb diets will lower thyroid function and can cause hormonal imbalances (not fun stuff!). Eat more calories on heavy workdays especially carbs. Eat carbs, protein (from organic, grass fed beef or lamb or organic dairy) and fat at every meal and snack to balance blood sugar. Avoid polyunsaturated fats (corn, sunflower, soy, canola, grapeseed, almond, walnut, avocado) as they increase inflammation and slow recovery. Use coconut oil, cacao butter, organic butter, red palm oil and smaller amounts of macadamia nuts and olive oil. Saturated fats are essential for hormone production and keep the thyroid happy.

Earning Your Training
Though our bodies are most certainly “meant to move”, this doesn’t mean intense or long duration exercise should be done everyday. Like everything in life, exercise must be balanced. You cannot engage in intense exercise 7 days a week and expect to be healthy. More is definitely not better when it comes to exercise. What you want is a blend of strength training, high intensity interval cardio, low-moderate intensity cardio, flexibility or yoga, and REST. Yes it is OK to just have rest days! Active rest is best like going for an easy walk, or doing some housework/gardening or stretching/ restorative yoga. Most importantly, pay attention to your bodies signals and listen to what it’s telling you. Learn when to push hard and when to back off.

Here’s a checklist to figure out if you have earned a hard workout or not. If you answer yes to any of these, modify your exercise for that day accordingly:

1. Have you had less than adequate and quality sleep?
2. Are you under a lot of emotional stress?
3. Do you have any colds or flues currently?
4. Are you excessively sore? Do your legs feel heavy?
5. Do you have any injuries?
6. Did you have a grueling workout yesterday?
7. Have you missed meals or eaten mostly processed/fast food lately?
8. Do you feel depressed or unmotivated to train?

So try to remember that as in all things in life, your exercise needs to be balanced and modified as needed . By listening to your body and optimizing your workouts with adequate rest and fuel, exercise can bring joy and health to your life. Happy training!

Amanda Rode
City of Edmonton Parks Peace Officer, NWS (Nutrition and Wellness Specialist), FIS (Fitness Instructor Specialist), PTS (Personal Trainer Specialist)