How Much Exercise is Enough? How Much is Too Much?

Everyone’s exercise tolerance and fundamental needs are going to be unique, but there are a few things we can generalize. I think there is a minimum that almost everyone will need to meet in order to be metabolically healthy, and also a point at which exercise stops being helpful and becomes harmful. Between those two points is the potential for individualization and experimentation.

How Much Do You Need?

There’s actually been quite a bit of research into the health benefits of exercise and how much exercise is necessary to experience those benefits, and currently it appears that the amount necessary to support metabolic and cardiovascular health is fairly modest. This is good news for people who have a hard time getting motivated or who don’t enjoy it, or who simply don’t have a lot of time. The current, evidence based recommendations that virtually every reputable public health agency have adopted are as follows:

  • 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity exercise (such as hiking or brisk walking)

OR

  • 75 minutes a week of vigorous exercise (such as running or spinning)

AND

  • full body resistance exercises twice a week (such as weight lifting or even yoga. These activities can be included in the 150 or 75 minutes above if they elevate your heart rate adequately).

You can meet these minimums in five 15-30 minute sessions, depending on the intensity you work at. The higher the intensity of your workout, the shorter it can (and really should) be.

For more information on how to determine the intensity of your exercise, check out my ‘Walking for Health and Fitness’ post.

How Much is Too Much?

Determining what is ‘too much’ is much less cut and dry. Clearly there are people (like Ironman Triathletes and Ultra endurance runners) who thrive on large volumes of exercise. But it is possible to exercise too hard, or too much. Overtraining is a real condition, with a pretty well defined set of symptoms, although it can be difficult to diagnose it properly.

The objective symptoms of overtraining include: changes in heart rate response, elevated cortisol after exercise, reduced reaction time and performance, and immune suppression. The subjective symptoms include: changes in mood, sleep disturbances, perception of stress and changes in self perception.

Researches have reached somewhat of a consensus regarding the classification and stages of ‘overtraining’, as follows:

Overtraining‘ is a catch-all term to describe the process of intensified training leading to decreases in performance. The first stage of overtraining is ‘Functional Overreaching‘ in which performance suffers but resolves after adequate rest. ‘Non-functional Overreaching‘ is a decrease in performance and psychological and neuro-endocrinological symptoms that resolve after adequate rest. And ‘Overtraining Syndrome‘ is a longer term decrease in performance (more than 2 months) accompanied by more severe objective and subjective symptoms of overtraining.

Diagnosing

It is important when attempting to diagnose overtraining to rule out other psychological or physiological illnesses that could be producing these symptoms. There are MANY conditions that could be present, from endocrine disorders to nutritional deficiencies to infectious disease to eating disorders. Like other troublesome self-diagnoses (Sugar Addiction, and Adrenal Fatigue for instance) the danger in self-diagnosing and treating is that there may be a real illness present for which inaccurate self-diagnosis hinders appropriate treatment. In my opinion and experience, when a non-athlete is experiencing these symptoms it’s far more likely they’re dealing with a nutritional deficiency or an eating disorder than true overtraining. Getting proper diagnosis and treatment is vital or the problem will only get worse.

Some signs to watch for that could indicate that there could be a physiological, psychological or overtraining problem developing:

  • insomnia
  • anxiety and/or depression
  • changes in self perception
  • fatigue
  • increasing anxiety about and/or attention to your weight or body shape
  • decreases in exercise performance
  • more frequent colds and infections
  • slower recovery after exercise
  • loss of interest in workouts, decrease in enjoyment and sense of accomplishment

Treatment

For the vast majority of people, allowing adequate time between workouts for recovery is all that is necessary to prevent overtraining. Your individual recovery requirements are unique, the best thing you can do is monitor your energy levels and sense of enjoyment during workouts. If you are dreading exercise you used to enjoy and counting the minutes until it is over, or feeling a lack of accomplishment after workouts that used to make you feel awesome, take a few days off, and dial back the intensity of your workouts until your enthusiasm returns.

Who Needs to Stop Exercising

In some cases, complete rest is indicated, but in my opinion these cases are pretty rare. Exercise is so fundamentally important to healthy metabolic function that I think complete rest should be reserved for those who have the clinical symptoms of overtraining,and/or those who are dealing with metabolic adaptations to starvation. People who need to completely stop exercising are sick enough that they need to be under medical supervision anyway. Most people can prevent overtraining from progressing to Overtraining Syndrome by resting adequately between workouts and reducing the intensity of their activity.

If you feel like you’re dealing with something more than a temporary bout of fatigue, or resting doesn’t improve your symptoms, see a doctor. Get a referral to an endocrinologist and/or a therapist, and get tested for the psychological and physiological effects of overtraining. And keep an open mind to the potential that it might not be overtraining, that it might be a psychological issue. Getting an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment will ensure you won’t waste time and money treating an illness you don’t have. Follow the advice of your medical professional if you find yourself dealing with these issues. As I said above, self diagnosing, or relying on an internet personality for diagnosis, puts you in danger of not getting appropriate treatment. This is a fairly big problem, as overtraining is a trendy diagnosis these days. These symptoms should not be taken lightly.

Most people will do just fine with regular, moderate activity in the form of walking, cycling, or casual social sports activities and some basic resistance exercises a few times a week. People who enjoy more vigorous forms of exercises will likewise do fine as long as they make sure to give their body proper recovery time and eat enough to support the added demands of their training.

Read More On the Topic:

American Heart Association Activity Recommendations
World Health Organization Activity Recommendations
CDC Activity Recommendations

Diagnostic Tools for Overtraining
Scientific Methods for Diagnosing Overtraining
Early Warnings of Overtraining

19 thoughts on “How Much Exercise is Enough? How Much is Too Much?

  1. I run for one our every other day and lift weights on the off days. I wonder if this is too much, or if I should take a day of complete rest once a week. I think I might be overtraining as I have a cold for the first time in a long time; I never get colds.

    • Well, colds happen. I’d assume you’re ok if you’re enjoying your routine, but keep an eye out for a pattern. If you see more symptoms, THEN start worrying. 🙂

  2. I love you. You make things so simple …because they are simple. I feel so much better when I read your posts and statuses because they always help me unload all of my silly concerns.
    balance. balance. balance. balance. listen to your body. balance. do what makes you happy.
    Those are all I really need to be concerned about.

  3. The trouble is that people who don’t like to exercise see overtraining everywhere they look. If you want to see it, you will see it, the full list of symptoms.

    • Fortunately, we don’t need to worry about what other people are doing or thinking, only ourselves.

  4. I’m in the process of losing 250 pounds. And I’m down 63 pounds in 4 months. I started out the first month with diet, then the next month with exercise. I exercise 6 days a week for 1 1/2 hours straight. And I’m wondering if I exercise too much. I’ve been battling lack of desire to exercise this week and I think it’s due to stress and maybe just too much exercise. I’ve even caught myself getting in 30 minutes to 45 minutes on my day off. And I don’t know what to do. I don’t struggle with food control. But with exercise I think I’m killing myself a little.

    • Naomi – I’m not any kind of “expert” – but – while I congratulate you on the weight loss, it sounds like a lot of weight really quickly. Are you getting any support processing your experience of losing the weight and losing the way you used to eat?

      You might want to force yourself to cut back a bit on the exercise (or eat more to fuel these workouts and slow your weight loss). I don’t really think there is anything wrong with 90 minutes/day of exercise if your body is ready/able/willing – really depends on the type of exercise and risk of that particular activity!

      But you are likely placing yourself at risk of injury if you were doing very little 4 months ago – depending on the type of exercise you are doing. How would you cope with an injury at this point in your process? I imagine it could be pretty devastating to lose this outlet.

      Perhaps consider cutting back to 60-90 mins 5 times a week and really respect those off days so your body can be adjusting to your new commitment! Or experiment with non-“exercise” forms of activity that might have a social/supportive community associated with the experience.

      moderation/peace,
      Laura

    • I’m not an expert by any means but I lost 135lb quite successfully with only moderate exercise a few times per week. I would walk on the treadmill at a steady but not overly fast pace (between 3.5 and 4.0) and when it felt too easy I would raise the incline rather than increasing the speed. I never broke a sweat doing this and I never worked out two days in a row but this seemed to work quite well with my eating plan to produce a consistent weight loss. Everyone is different but this worked very well for me.

      • I do incline treadmill for 45 minutes with a 5 minute cool down, then I get on the elliptical that simulates stairs and go for 30 minutes with a 3 minute cooldown. I get 2.61 miles in on the treadmill average and 2.34 average on the elliptical average.

        • That sounds fine to me, if you’re enjoying it and not experiencing any symptoms of overtraining. Listen to your body. I do very well on a lot of cardio. We are all different. Listen to your body.
          Do give yourself days off at least once a week though!

  5. Is there a rule of thumb for how long you should be sore after strength training? I’ve recently added more upper-body strength work to my routine, such as using the assisted pull-up machine. I find that my shoulder and arm muscles will be sore sometimes for 2-3 days afterwards. I have a once-a-week yoga class and if I’m not careful with my workouts earlier in the week, I don’t have the ability to handle the upper-body work of the yoga. (I’m 48, and I do notice as I’ve gotten older, recovery time seems longer.)

  6. Would rock climbing be considered full body resistance? I’m out on lifting, inconsistent with my yoga but don’t I love the daylights out of rock climbing. I go once or twice a week for a couple of hours and my arms feel like wet noodles after.

  7. This is a great topic. I thought I had some overtraining issues and decreased exercise to 4 days a week. I come from an over-exercising past and anorexic past, so this was great for me along with an increase in food and food variety. I have since had something similar to walking pneumonia, a pretty nasty cold, and now my lower back is injured. I just can’t win here! I do intense workouts, and started back with the high impact stuff I did during the ED..and BAM my back is pissed. Any suggestions? What the heck am I doing wrong?

  8. Pingback: F&F Friday Favorites: 12.20.13 | Fitness & Feta

  9. Pingback: Thinking Out Loud (#4) | Living Mint Green

Comments are closed.