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Exercise Burnout: Taking Fitness Too Far


Exercise experts spend much of their time exhorting sedentary people to move, move, move.

Sound advice, when you consider that about 30 percent of the adult population is inactive, federal officials say, despite a constant bombardment of public health messages about the value of physical activity.

But sometimes the exercise gurus must turn their attention to those who've taken the physical fitness gospel too far. They are the committed exercisers who overtrain to the point of burnout -- even injury. Or well-intentioned couch potatoes who embrace a workout program too aggressively, only to fall victim to injury.

While burnout is difficult to describe, experts know it when they see it, says Cedric X. Bryant, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise, a San Diego-based organization that certifies instructors nationwide and educates the public about the value of exercise.

Overtraining is "exercise beyond the body's ability," Bryant says. "It's when training intensity, duration or volume really surpasses the recuperation time being offered to the body."

For instance, a long-distance runner who goes out and runs hard every day, perhaps for several hours, and allows no recuperation time is probably overtraining, Bryant says.

"Recuperation doesn't mean total rest, but active rest," he says. That might mean following a hard day of running with an easy jog the next.

If you don't allow recovery time, Bryant says, you'll soon see a decrease in performance -- a point of diminishing returns.

This can be hard for many people to grasp; they figure that if some exercise is good, more must be better.

Besides a decline in physical performance, common signs and symptoms of overtraining include dwindling enthusiasm for working out; increases in resting heart rate and resting blood pressure; muscle or joint soreness that won't go away; increased incidence of colds and infection; a decrease in appetite and weight; disturbed sleep, and increased irritability, anxiety or depression, Bryant says.

"Most people aren't adept at recognizing it in themselves," he says. Often a physician, a coach or a spouse might point it out.

And the person may deny it.

Bryant estimates that about 10 percent of the American adult population falls into the overtraining trap.

"You tend to see overtraining occurring in certain sports," says Dr. P.Z. Pearce, a sports medicine physician in Spokane, Wash., who has published on the topic in medical literature.

These sports include gymnastics, figure skating, marathon running and body building, says Pearce, who also serves as team physician for pro football's Seattle Seahawks and medical director of the Iron Man triathalon in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.

While athletes and dedicated exercisers are most vulnerable to overtraining, health experts say weekend warriors or those kicking off an exercise program frequently run into problems.

Both groups need help, the experts say.

Escaping the overtraining trap can be as hard as giving up cigarettes or alcohol, Pearce says. "It seriously is like any other addiction. Usually it takes an injury to convince them they have to slow down," he adds.

Pearce remembers a marathon runner who was forced by an injury to throttle back on her training schedule right before a race. The result: She ran her best marathon ever. The healing that took place during her slack period was the secret, Pearce says, and convinced her that more isn't always better.

Adds Bryant: "The gains [in performance and skill] are made during the recovery process. What happens is that when you are stressing the various systems, challenging them to perform at a higher level, during the recovery process, adaptation occurs. Muscles increase in their strength and size."

And performance improves.

So how can you avoid the overtraining trap?

The key, Bryant and Pearce say, is to listen to your body. If you feel more exhausted than energized despite your best exercise efforts, it's probably time to scale back your regimen.

And finally, practice moderation. As the American Council on Exercise notes: "Don't expect to exercise an hour every day simply because your fit friend does. The body needs time to adjust, adapt and recuperate. Exercising to the point of overtraining is simply taking one step forward, two steps back."

More information

For details on the signs and causes of overtraining, visit the American Council on Exercise. The council also offers examples of moderate activity.


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