We Found Out Just How Much Exercise Is *Too* Much Exercise

Photo: Getty/Guido Mieth
When it comes to exercise, many of us want to know how much we have to do in order to feel stronger (like: Do my 10,000 steps fill in for time spent at the gym...or nah?), while others love to double-up on sweat-fueled cardio classes a few times a week. It begs the question: What's the right amount of exercise to squeeze into a day, week, month, or year—and how much exercise is too much?

As it happens, you can exercise too much, and the effects result in more than just sore quads. Exercise, in its most basic form, is a regimented way of putting your body under stress. Just like any other stressor, there comes a time when your bod just can’t take any more, however according to Rondel King, MS, an exercise physiologist at NYU Langone Sports Performance Center, one's tolerance for physical activity is very individual. “When it comes to monitoring how much exercise is too much, you should listen to your body,” he says. “Your body will definitely tell you whether it’s under stress, you’re exercising too much, or you’re just exerting too much.”

But your body isn’t the only thing that needs workout recovery. Having that no-days-off mentality can impact your brain's ability to tackle a workout, too. “We’re constantly pushing, and we don’t give ourselves that mental break,” says Angela Fifer, PhD, CMPC and Association for Applied Sport Psychology E-board member. “We’re looking for more and we’re looking to go harder, get faster, get better versus allowing ourselves to just breathe, and we really need that from a psychological perspective.”

How your body tells you that you're exercising too much

1. You’re getting sick: If you’re constantly putting your body under a ton of stress by exercising upwards of 90 minutes, your immune system will weaken, according to King. Then, when you’re typically exposed to bacteria and viruses you would normally fight off before you even notice the first symptom, you'd be more susceptible to getting sick in the few days that follow.

2. You’re getting injured: Over-exercising is also linked to injury. If you don’t allow your muscles to recover, you’re making them more prone to being over-stretched, over-stressed, and just rundown. “You would get weak, you would get muscular strains,” says King. “And that would have a domino effect, because if you seriously injure yourself, you can potentially become less physically active because of that injury."

3. You’re feeling lethargic at the gym: If you’re finding yourself dreading being at the gym (more than usual) and struggling through every single exercise, your body might be trying to tell you something. “One of the main signs [of exercising too much] is that you wouldn't feel like yourself. You’d feel like you can’t put out as much energy,” says King. You might ebb and flow through those feelings throughout your fitness journey, explains Dr. Fifer, but if they’re sustaining, try giving yourself a break—you’ll likely come back to the gym after your day or two off with more fervor, strength, and motivation. BTW, a proper rest day, much like the threshold for overdoing exercise, looks different for everyone. Typically, people need 24 to 48 hours of recovery after an intense resistance training session, King says, but you can do cardiovascular training every day, as long as you periodize the intensity.

Cool, cool. So how should I be resting?

Regardless of whether you’re currently training for a race or just a casual exerciser, one thing everyone should do during their recovery is move. I'm not talking about a huge workout, but maybe going for a walk around the block, doing a slow yoga flow, or even expending some energy on household chores.

“On rest days you should be doing some form of recovery,” says King. “That could come in different forms, like breathing exercises to help you activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for rest and digestion, and putting you into more of a recovery mode. Doing some form of postural work and breathing activities can help aid in faster recovery.”

Psychologically, you should be spending your rest days recovering your mind, too. Depending on if you’re naturally an introvert or extrovert, you might find yourself taking much-needed alone time, or instead filling up your schedule with coffee dates with friends and phone calls with family. Think about it this way: A day off from the gym gives you an extra hour or two to finish up the tasks on your TDL you haven’t had time to accomplish.

“Recharging helps us deal with all of our life stuff,” says Dr. Fifer. “We’re not just exercisers, and most of us have other roles and responsibilities as well, so to be able to find some balance and get some of those commitments done, and then just to be able to let everything go and relax a little bit is important.” BRB, putting my feet up.

For the perfect recovery recipe, check out these three tips from an Olympic runner. And if you've hit a strength plateau, find out why your recovery method might be to blame

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