While exercise can offer a wide range of health benefits, it can be easy to overdo it. If you find that you are extremely fatigued, stressed out, and have gained weight, then you may be experiencing signs of overtraining.
Otherwise known as overtraining syndrome, too much exercise can have serious consequences that can negatively affect your health and cause a decline in performance. But how does this lead to weight gain, and what are some signs of overtraining syndrome? Let’s first discuss the recommended amount of exercise and how you can know if you’re exercising too much.
The Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity/day, 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity/week or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise/week for improved health and wellness [1
]. However, if you are looking to lose weight, the American College of Sports Medicine states that 150 to 250 minutes of exercise/week can yield modest weight-loss results [2
]. If you have a specific goal like running a half-marathon or completing a triathlon, you most likely will exceed the recommendations to prepare for the event, however, that needs to be balanced with extra rest as well as recovery strategies to prevent overtraining.
Before embarking on a new exercise routine, it’s recommended to see a healthcare provider first.
How much exercise is too much?
Exercise has many health benefits, including a reduced risk of chronic diseases, improved blood pressure, and enhanced coordination. However, you can have too much of a good thing.
Research has shown that exercising too frequently or too intensely can have a negative effect on the body and lead to pulled muscles, mood swings, overuse injuries, fatigue, and even a decline in performance [3
]. This is more commonly referred to as overtraining syndrome, as these signs of overtraining are usually caused due to a lack of rest and recovery from exercise [6
]. Moreover, it can result in hormone fluctuations, a suppressed immune system, and psychological changes, and may cause you to take an extended period of time off from exercise to fully recover [4
Here are some signs of overtraining:
Takes longer to recover after a workout
Decline in performance
Workouts feel more challenging
Poor sleep quality
Lack of energy, decreased motivation, or moodiness
Increased blood pressure
Irregular menstrual cycles
How overtraining can cause weight gain
If you’re over-exercising and wondering why you’re gaining weight, there are a few causes which could be to blame. Here are some ways that overtraining syndrome can affect the number on the scale.
Regardless of how much you’re exercising, you could still gain weight depending on what (and how much) you’re eating. Science has shown that intense fatigue, increased hunger, and even food cravings (especially for sweets) are signs of overtraining, all of which can lead to weight gain [5
]. If you are constantly fatigued and find yourself reaching for highly processed foods more often than not, you may experience an increase in weight.
Exercise is generally beneficial for sleep, however, training too much without adequate recovery can actually have the opposite effects. Research suggests that increased training load can lead to reduced sleep quality due to elevated levels of the stress hormone, cortisol [6
]. High cortisol levels can make it difficult to relax at bedtime and may result in a restless night.
Poor sleep can also lead to disruptions in glucose utilization and storage, insulin sensitivity, and/or lipid metabolism, all of which negatively impact weight [7
]. These changes in metabolic function are tied to the sympathetic overstimulation, hormonal imbalances, and inflammation that occur as a result of sleep deprivation [8
]. Moreover, sleep deprivation can also lead to increased levels of ghrelin, the body’s hunger hormone, which may translate to increased food intake, particularly of hard-to-resist sweets and high-calorie snacks [9
Stress and hormonal changes.
While occasional stress is normal, chronic stress can significantly affect your health and even impact your weight, both by thwarting weight loss and promoting unwanted weight gain.
In high-stress situations, your body releases adrenaline, cortisol, and glucose as part of a “fight-or-flight” response [10
]. However, when your body is under chronic stress (as in with overtraining syndrome), cortisol levels stay elevated for an extended period and contribute to numerous health problems, including high blood pressure, brain fog, weakened immune system and unwanted weight gain [11
Research has found that athletes who experience overtraining syndrome have elevated levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), an inflammatory marker [13
]. As such, many people may experience weight gain as a negative side effect of systemic inflammation [14
How to avoid overtraining syndrome
If you feel that you are experiencing signs of overtraining (or you just want to avoid it altogether), here are a few suggestions to help you out.
Listen to your body. If you’re feeling extra sore or burned out, don’t push yourself. Take a few extra days off to stretch, go on a walk, or do some light yoga.
Get a massage. A professional masseuse will help relax your muscles, relieve tension, and prevent injury.
Schedule rest days. It can be easy to overdo it if you don’t plan to rest. Plan this into your training schedule to help avoid burnout.
Fuel your body. Focus on eating a well-balanced diet with enough calories, carbohydrates, protein, healthy fats, and antioxidants to sustain your workouts.
Periodize workouts. To avoid overtraining, try varying your workouts between light and hard days. This will help optimize performance and allow you to make necessary variable adjustments in your training.
Exercise offers many health benefits, including better sleep, improved mood, reduced risk of chronic illness, and weight management. However, too much can lead to overtraining syndrome and have a variety of deleterious effects including weight gain, poor sleep quality, immune system suppression, injuries, and increased hunger. You can reverse the effects of overtraining (or avoid it altogether) by getting enough rest, periodizing your workouts, optimizing nutrition before, during and after a workout, and engaging in other recovery strategies.
Disclaimer: The text, images, videos, and other media on this page are provided for informational purposes only and are not intended to treat, diagnose, or replace personalized medical care.