From what I can see on social media right now, it is awesome how much everyone is working out. Exercise is great. We can all use the mental benefits from the endorphins. We can all use the benefits to our health and immune systems that exercise provides. But remember exercise is like a drug. Too little exercise and will not get the benefits. Too much exercise and we can overdose. And like all drugs it comes with some side effects. Some of you are athletes with specific athletic goals and this only sort of applies to you. Most of you are regular people with regular jobs that are recreational users of fitness and exercise with the typical goals of looking better naked and staying “in shape.” Those weekend warriors that suddenly find themselves with a lot of time on their hands and find themselves getting tagged in push-up challenges on social media, this is for you.
Drugs all have what is known as a minimum effective dose, the least amount you need to get the desired effect. Exercise is no different. We want an adaptation to exercise, be it strength, stamina, endurance, or weight loss. Lift enough weight to get strong. Do enough reps to build your stamina. Run far and fast enough to improve your lungs and heart. If you’re not stressing the system, you are not stimulating adaptation. For example, I might do a workout with 100 push-ups. That could be a good workout for me to get a little fitter. That does not mean a workout with 200 push-ups in it will make me twice as fit. In fact, if your sweet spot is 100 pushups, 50 won’t be enough to continue improving and 200 will probably side line you for a while and leave you too sore to workout for a while. Conversely, if you did 100 push-ups a day, eventually that would stop being enough to be a stimulus. You need to increase the number over time as you build a tolerance.
If you are newly quarantined and haven’t been working out for an hour or two every day, then jumping right into all that might be a little much. Overtraining can lead to a lack of adaptation as well mental and physical fatigue. You can quickly burn out and even get injured. Consider it like the “January effect” where everyone signs up for the gym in January and by February have given up on working out altogether. Too much. Too soon. I encourage people to ease into it. Develop the habit first. Start with a short workout every day maybe some sit-ups and push-ups. Next week add some air squats and maybe a short run. By week three your body should start to feel invigorated and now you can open up the throttle a little more and start throwing some weights around.
The worst physical side effect from over exertion is compromising your immune system. Exercise is a physical stress and too much stress will release a lot of stress hormones and depress the immune system. So there is a delicate balance of exercising enough but not too much. The fitter you are the harder it will be to cross that line since your body is used to repeated stress from exercise, but for the newly initiated, it is best to start slow and build. Consider following your exercise with a nap to allow for recovery. I tell people to imagine that they’re a firefighter and that they shouldn’t work out to the point where they could not go and immediately answer an alarm. At least in the beginning it is best to leave something in the tank for tomorrow.
The psychological effect of overtraining is just as deleterious. With everyone posting exercise videos on social media these days it easy to feel like a fat piece of crap for not working out 3 hours a day. Like a drug, a small dose once or twice a day is plenty. Thinking that you should take more and more is a dangerous road to go down. Also watching people workout all the time can cause you to feel like you’re not worthy and you’re not doing enough. Do not get sucked in to the hype. Work out and get fitter, but do not compete to out exercise everyone on the internet. Use this time to better yourself. But do not create anxiety around working out. Spend some time reflecting on areas in your life you want to improve and spend your time wisely. Spending two hours working out probably will not help you reach your goals as much as spending one hour working out and one hour cooking healthy meals for yourself.
Seek to find the minimum effective dose: enough to get you better but not enough to give you the negative side effects.