Can Too Much Exercise Halt Weight Loss?

To lose weight and keep it off we are told to exercise regularly. Physical activity burns calories and helps tone our body, everything we need during this process. While the benefits of exercise are well-known, potential risks are rarely talked about. Can we overdo exercise so much that we stop losing weight as a result? Find out below.

How Much Exercise is Necessary to Lose Weight?

Let’s start with the basics first. We are always told regular physical activity is an important component of a successful weight loss, but how much do we have to exercise to make it happen?

Adults are advised to do two types of physical activity each week to improve their health-aerobic activity and muscle strengthening. The CDC reports you should get (1):

  • 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week
  • 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity a week
  • An equivalent mix of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity 2 or more days a week

Besides engaging in aerobic activities we are advised to engage in muscle-strengthening activities.

The abovementioned physical activity requirements promote good health, fitness levels, and may help you maintain weight. But to give a significant boost to weight loss, it’s recommended to get 150 to 250 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise a week. In other words, 22 to 35 minutes of exercise a day could help you slim down (2). Some studies recommend getting more than 250 minutes of exercise a week to lose weight and keep it off (3).

To get the most out of an exercise, you may want to focus on aerobic training at least three times a week of minimum 20 minutes per session. Longer cardio workouts are described as more beneficial for weight loss. For instance, including 15 minutes of moderate exercise such as walking one mile into your daily life can help you burn up to 100 extra calories. Over a week this could amount to 700 calories, and 10lbs of weight loss over the course of the year (4).

While these recommendations may help you get a close picture of how much exercise is necessary, it’s important to clarify one thing – there is no magic number that produces weight loss. The ideal amount of exercise may vary from one person to another. Various factors play a role here including your current weight, fitness levels, metabolism, diet.

To lose weight, you need to exercise regularly and adjust your diet habits. That way, you end up burning more calories than you consume.

Does Exercise Prevent Weight Loss?

Successful weight loss is based on two major components: diet and exercise. Physical activity is particularly important, but also widely misunderstood. A common belief is the more you do, the better results you’ll have. This misconception often propels people to over exercise thinking it’s the only way to lose weight and reach their specific body goal. Although it may seem practical, this strategy doesn’t really work.

Overexercising can do more harm than good. Adrenal fatigue is one of many consequences of overtraining (5). The term adrenal fatigue refers to a group of nonspecific symptoms that occurs due to chronic stress (6). Symptoms of adrenal fatigue may include body aches, fatigue, digestive problems, sleep disturbances, and nervousness.

Tiredness and other symptoms of adrenal fatigue prevent you from getting the most out of your workouts and you may even end up losing motivation to exercise in the first place.

Now you’re probably wondering what chronic stress has got to do with all this. Overtraining can manifest itself through various signs and symptoms including increased stress and other problems such as depression, mental fog, and mood changes. A person may experience a lack of enthusiasm and concentration (7).

Pushing the body through strenuous exercises more than necessary can mess with cortisol, the stress hormone. As a result, you may experience problems such as increased tiredness, impaired athletic performance, and weight gain in the abdominal area.

You need to keep in mind exercise does more than burn fat and calories. Workouts have a major impact on every aspect of our health, including your hormones. Since the balance of hormones is crucial for metabolism, weight loss, and other functions you may experience various issues if you disturb them.

Cortisol is one of the biggest problems here. When you exercise too much the concentration of this hormone goes up. This happens because the body doesn’t really know the difference between normal stress and exercise-related stress. So when you’re stressed out about exercise, for example, cortisol levels increase dramatically. High levels of cortisol don’t allow the body to burn fat. Since the body can’t burn fat, it halts weight loss. You may notice that despite regular workouts and hard work in the gym, the pounds still won’t go down. That’s why! Cortisol slows down your metabolism, meaning weight loss is more difficult to achieve (89).

Elevated levels of cortisol may promote appetite and make you eat more (10). Higher calorie intake combined with slow metabolism doesn’t allow you to maintain the calorie deficit required for weight loss. This can also explain stagnation in weight loss. Some people may even gain weight.

Overeating due to higher cortisol explains why spikes in this hormone increase abdominal fat (11).

A lot more research is necessary to inspect underlying mechanisms involved in the relationship between too much exercise and weight loss problems. It’s highly likely the link goes beyond cortisol and extends to other factors. For example, keeping up with too much exercise may be difficult for some people so you would end up working out less eventually.

Too much exercise may also encourage unhealthy eating behaviors. Actually, many people repeat the same mistake where they rely only on strenuous workouts but continue eating unhealthy foods. For many, eating trans fats, sugar-laden foods, and other unhealthy items is okay because they’re going to “burn it off” in the gym. The false sense of security created by an excessive workout regimen may also halt your weight loss due to high-calorie intake. This is especially the case in times of high stress when the body can’t burn enough calories to help you slim down.

How Much Exercise is Too Much

It’s important to clarify one thing here – the main focus of this post is not to tell you that exercise doesn’t work. You don’t need (or shouldn’t) cancel your gym membership now or avoid working out. Too much exercise may halt your weight loss, but how much is too much exactly?

This is the tricky part; there is no qualitative answer to the abovementioned question. Numerous factors are involved in this equation including nutrition, exercise intensity, stress, and age.

The best way to determine whether you’re having too much exercise is to look for symptoms such as (12):

  • Reaching plateau
  • Getting less fit
  • Gaining weight
  • Muscle soreness worse than before
  • Moodiness
  • Impaired quality of sleep
  • Getting injured frequently
  • Rapid heart rate

Probably the biggest telltale sign of too much exercise is that you’re not able to perform at the same level, despite regular workouts. Some people may even slim down, unintentionally, which can also be problematic if they’re trying to bulk up their muscle mass.

If you’re exercising regularly and notice these symptoms you should reduce the amount of exercise or rest for one to two weeks (13).

Why do these symptoms happen in the first place? When working out, you are breaking down muscle fibers. Under normal circumstances, when you have proper rest, this is a good thing because the body repairs and rebuilds them. The repair process depends on several factors such as nutrition, recovery, and sleep. Fail to achieve any of these things and you’ll harm the body’s ability to do its job in getting you stronger. Doing so constantly puts you under chronic stress and other problems it causes.

Dangers of Over Exercising

Fitness culture revolves around the “more equals better” idea, which can be damaging. As seen above, too much exercise can induce a wide spectrum of symptoms. Learning more about these symptoms allows you to recognize these changes easily and modify your workout routine. In other words, you need to listen to your body in order to understand whether you’re getting too much exercise or not.

But, what if you don’t listen to your body?

The dangers of too much exercise are much worse than the symptoms you may experience.

Extremely strenuous activities can eventually lead to heart damage, enlarged arteries, and heart rhythm disorders in some people. The theory is that extreme endurance forms extreme pressure on the cardiovascular system. When the body (or the heart) is under this tremendous amount of stress regularly, it can cause thickening of walls and scarring tissue in the heart.

It’s useful to mention a study from Mayo Clinic Proceedings that found subjects who exercised too much for many years were more likely to develop coronary artery calcification (14). Coronary artery calcification is the buildup of calcium within artery walls. In turn, walls of the arteries harden, just like it happens in atherosclerosis.

A different study revealed women who performed strenuous activity every day had a higher risk of blood clots, heart disease, and stroke than their counterparts who focused on moderate exercise (15).

Remember, this is when you exercise too much and fail to recover properly.

Men may experience low libido due to too much exercise. Chronic stress caused by over-exercise lowers testosterone levels. Reduced concentration of testosterone can lead to various symptoms and lack of sexual desire is one of them.

Women and men alike are at a higher risk of overuse injuries such as tendinitis and stress fractures. Repetitive trauma is behind these injuries. When that happens, your quality of life and range of motion suffer too.

Excessive exercise interrupts all the good things the “normal” amount of physical activity offers. For example, normal exercise strengthens the immune system while overexercise weakens immune defenses (16).

What To Do If You Over Exercise?

If you tend to over-exercise you may want to see your healthcare provider first. This is especially the case if you have various symptoms associated with too much exercise. Healthcare professionals can assess your health and help you come up with the best strategy to improve your quality of life. Besides the doctor, you may want to consult a fitness expert or a private trainer who will help tailor your workout regimen in the most suitable way. Adhering to that workout regimen is crucial, which is often easier said than done.

Since nutrition is vital, you may also need to make a tweak or two in your diet. Well-balanced nutrition can help your body rest and recover properly. For that reason, you need to get specific amounts of different nutrients. Fad diets and other trends aren’t helpful here. All you need is to focus on healthy nutrition. If you’re not sure how to make it happen, a nutritionist can help you out.

Most importantly, you need rest. As mentioned above, you will need to pause one to two weeks from physical activity. Use this mini-break to allow the body to recover properly so that you can resume your workouts and get the most out of them (including weight loss).

Tips for Successful Weight Loss

Weight loss is a challenging journey. For many people losing weight is easier said than done. Sometimes it seems weight loss is not meant to be, especially when you’re doing your best to exercise and nothing happens. Although a challenge, weight loss is not a mission impossible. You can, indeed, slim down successfully and these tips will show how to make the journey easier:

  • Have a realistic goal. It’s never too late to set a goal that will keep you motivated to keep going with your weight-loss journey. Your goal should be realistic, measurable, achievable, and specific. Avoid vague terms and general goals. For instance, you may want to divide a big, general goal “weight loss” into smaller milestones that you can easily achieve.
  • Exercise regularly. The importance of physical activity is immense, but you need to be careful to avoid overdoing it. Listen to your body and recognize the signals it’s sending you. You may want to focus on a variety of exercises during the week or combine low- and high-intensity workouts. Allow yourself to recover properly after workouts and never forget about rest days. Resting is equally important as exercising.
  • Modify your nutrition and avoid fad diets. They are restrictive and quite unhealthy. Instead, prioritize a well-balanced diet that focuses on fruits, vegetables, and other whole foods. Reduce or avoid intake of heavily processed and refined foods. Nutrition is important for the recovery process after exercise as well.
  • Don’t skip meals. Skipping meals may seem like a good idea, but the reality is that your calorie intake will increase later on.
  • Drink plenty of water. Thirst is often confused with hunger. Drinking enough water can prevent thirst and also suppress your appetite.
  • Reduce stress. Unmanaged stress often affects our motivation, increases appetite, and induces cravings for unhealthy foods. All these things can prevent you from slimming down.

Conclusion

Physical activity stands as one of the go-to strategies for successful weight loss. But, if you feel like regular exercise isn’t making you lose weight it’s a sign of a deeper problem. Too much exercise can, actually, halt weight loss due to its impact on cortisol levels. Over-exercise happens primarily because people believe more equals better. While regular exercise is helpful, you need to understand when you’re overdoing it. There’s no magic number here, just keep an eye on the symptoms mentioned above.

References:

  1. https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/adults/index.htm
  2. https://www.verywellfit.com/how-much-exercise-to-lose-weight-3495493
  3. https://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Fulltext/2009/02000/Appropriate_Physical_Activity_Intervention.26.aspx
  4. https://www.healthline.com/health/exercise-and-weight-loss
  5. https://www.businessinsider.com/exercising-too-much-can-actually-make-you-gain-weight-heres-why-2017-12
  6. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/addisons-disease/expert-answers/adrenal-fatigue/faq-20057906
  7. https://www.healthline.com/health/signs-of-overtraining
  8. https://www.verywellmind.com/how-stress-can-cause-weight-gain-3145088
  9. https://www.biologicalpsychiatryjournal.com/article/S0006-3223(14)00385-0/fulltext
  10. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11070333/
  11. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15211363/
  12. https://www.shape.com/fitness/tips/how-much-exercise-is-too-much-over-training
  13. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000807.htm
  14. https://www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/article/S0025-6196(17)30577-3/fulltext
  15. https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/full/10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.114.010296
  16. https://www.businessinsider.com/what-over-exercise-does-body-brain-health-2018-4
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