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By now most of us who are concerned with our health and fitness have heard many times that regular exercise leads to increased muscle tone and strength. It also has other benefits, including a lowered resting heart rate, better sleep, improved self-esteem, and even increased resistance to disease. But you may be surprised to learn that over-exercising can lead to the exact opposite—excessive weight loss, loss of muscle tone and strength, increased resting heart rate, disrupted sleep, lower self-esteem, and reduced resistance to disease. This is the message presented in a recent report by Adrian Shepard, assistant director of recreation at Butler University.

Shepard warns that many people, inspired by the purported benefits of exercise, “overdo it” and fall prey to the dangers of over-training. This phenomenon happens because periods of exercise need to be balanced by equal periods of rest to perform their health and fitness magic. Improvements in strength and endurance only occur after the rest periods following hard training, a cycle that can take days to complete. A period of sufficient rest is required before the muscles can heal and regenerate themselves, especially when performing exercises that take muscles to their extremes, such as weight-lifting. If sufficient rest is not taken, then complete muscle regeneration cannot occur, and if this imbalance between hard training and inadequate rest persists and becomes chronic, a person’s athletic performance and overall health can suffer.

Over-training is more likely to occur if the person is also exposed to other physical stressors such as jet lag, ongoing illnesses, overwork, menstruation, and poor nutrition. It has been pinpointed as a particular problem plaguing bodybuilders performing weight training, and dieters who engage in strenuous exercise while simultaneously limiting their food intake.

Shepard suggests that there are several “warning signs” to look for that might indicate you are over-training. You might start to see actual losses in strength, agility, or athletic performance from week to week, rather than improvements. You might also notice that your resting heart rate increases, rather than decreases, and that you experience periods of muscle fatigue, disturbed sleep patterns, or gastrointestinal disturbances. Psychological indicators of over-training include irritability, depression, apathy, and lowered self-esteem. Many people who are over-training also find themselves prone to more infections and minor diseases such as colds and flu, and more likely to experience injuries while exercising. Another classic indicator that you may be over-training is the inability to complete your scheduled workout.

To protect yourself against over-training, Shepard and other experts advise the following, especially if you are just starting a new exercise program:

  • If you are under a doctor’s care or a member of a fitness center, schedule a fitness assessment to determine your “baseline” physical health and fitness levels. This should include your “starting” weight, physical measurements, and strength/fitness levels. Then, in cooperation with your doctor or trainers, refer to this baseline often to make sure you are making progress, and not “losing ground” due to over-training.
  • Start your exercise program slowly, and gradually work your way up to higher weights, longer runs, or longer periods of exercising. This is even more important if you have been inactive for long periods of time before starting to exercise again.
  • At your fitness center, ask the staff to “walk you through” the proper use of all equipment, with emphasis on what is normal use and what would be over-training.
  • Ask your doctor or your fitness center expert about the proper timing of your workouts. That is, how many days after weight training you should wait before working on a specific set of muscles again, how long you should rest after a hard workout, etc.
  • When consulting these experts, ask about “split training,” in which you work on different sets of muscles on different days, or days of aerobic exercise alternating with days of weight training.
  • Watch your diet, and make sure that your calorie intake at least matches your expenditure of energy when exercising, and that you are getting sufficient vitamins and nutrients. If you are training to increase muscle strength, make sure your diet contains enough protein.
  • If symptoms of overtraining begin to appear, increase your daily sleep time, and consider reducing the amount, intensity, or frequency of your training.
  • Occasionally take a break from training to allow your body more time to recover and regenerate. Try to pay attention during this break to whether you start to feel better, and whether your sleep patterns actually become better. Then readjust your exercise routine accordingly after the break.
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