What amount and intensity of exercise is optimal?

The answer I’ve come to over the past six years of training like a maniac involves one thing: a healthy response and adaptation to the stress. In other words, an amount that keeps you healthy. That sounds unsatisfying but what I mean is that you can exercise and improve your physical fitness while destroying your health. You can be anorexic and have extremely low bone mass and still be very “fit” physically. Overtraining sometimes implies that plateaus are reached and further improvements aren’t being made but there is much more to it.

Once you are unable to respond to stress, the rest of your body starts shutting down as I discussed in the previous post. Adrenal fatigue and hypothyroidism start to take place and you’ll experience weird symptoms: poorer sleep, hair falling out, ice-cold hands and feet, lethargy, brain fog, low libido, low body temperature, waking up in middle of night to urinate, etc.

So how do you know if it’s too much? You will. You won’t feel good.

This is what imho a healthy response to exercise may feel like post-workout:

  • better mood
  • lower anxiety: something that was bothering you before may not seem as bad anymore
  • relaxation
  • excitement and more energy
  • improved cognitive function
  • increased attention span
  • peaceful slumber

These are some of my symptoms when my body responds properly. This is what an unhealthy response to the demands of an exercise session may feel like

  • desire to sleep: during and after the workout
  • fatigue (yawning during workout or after)
  • irritability
  • poorer cognitive function, brain fog
  • less motivation
  • stiffness
  • morning grogginess day after
  • abnormally low heart rate day after
  • decreased heart rate variability

You’ll know: it might be the day after when you experience negative symptoms, but I’m confident that if you pay attention to how you feel, you will be able to differentiate between a poor response and a good response. Do you remember the feeling of endorphins rushing through you after a long workout? Do you remember that feeling declining as you overtrained? I do.

The desire to push through all obstacles and make “no excuses” or take “no days off” sounds like it takes dedication but it’s not as hard as it seems. I don’t understand how people call intense training “hard work.” Once it becomes “hard” you’re probably quite stressed and need to chill out. It’s not “hard” to run or train when you don’t feel like it, because it’s not hard to want to be thin or fit, the root cause of exercise addiction.

I think it’s much more difficult to get out of an exercise addiction, because your muscles “feel” like moving and contracting even if you are not mentally recovered. When I was squatting and lunging heavy, my quadriceps would ache to just contract intensely under a heavy load. Similarly my back muscles would ache for my next session of weighted pull-ups. I’m not sure exactly what’s happening so I can only speculate. Once the muscles are recovered, they’re ready to fire. They’ll fire in the movement patterns you train them with. If you run a lot you won’t “feel” like doing heavy squats. if you train like a powerlifter and do heavy squats often you’re not going to “feel” like running; you’ll feel like squatting. If you are a boxer, you won’t feel like doing bicep curls very often unless you’re doing that regularly already.

If your muscles feel like training but mentally you don’t have the same drive and motivation as you do when you are fully recovered, you may be tempted to train anyway. I’ve experienced this for a looong time. Doing this repeatedly will most likely fatigue the nervous system even more and result in the symptoms we talked about. Once you take days off, the addiction starts to subside. Before you started exercise training your muscles weren’t addicted to exercise so you can be confident that with rest the addiction will subside. I honestly haven’t even mastered this yet: recently I’ve still gone to the gym when my feet were cold and my body temperature was lower than normal. I’ve made an effort to eliminate that habit and have seen improvement.

When you observe communities who are devoted to exercise (young squatting and deadlifting males, cardio-females, crossfitters, marathoners/triathletes), you’ll see generally that people don’t like rest days. Once you form a rewarding habit it’s kind of tough to break it. Training intensely to change your body or lift more weight can be a rewarding experience that can be hard to let go of. I could write a whole book on how to stop exercising because it can be really tough. For those with eating disorders or a general desire to be thin, they may switch around to different types of exercise but still the underlying reason for their behaviors hasn’t changed. The other day I viewed a post on reddit by an anorexic female who was looking for workouts to build more muscle because she realized that starving herself to lose weight doesn’t lower body fat percentage effectively. Her underlying symptom, an overevaluation of shape and weight (that’s the exact term used in psychology to describe it), hasn’t changed.

Have you had similar experiences? When I’m recovered completely, exercise is more fun, more intense, and I am in a better mood afterwards. When I’m not recovered but I push myself anyway, my productivity declines and I don’t feel good. That’s the definition of addition: you do something anyway even when the high declines. If you want the high to last, take some time off.

I have for example just quit going to the gym recently because I was maxing out frequently in all my lifts: lunges, single legged deadlifts, pullups, dips, rows, DB bench, bicep curls, overhead press, etc. I wasn’t born with the ability to max out in these lifts; over time my work capacity increased to the point where I could complete most of those in one session in a circuit format without feeling too winded. Maybe it becomes even tougher to stop the more fit you are and the greater your work capacity is?

Now I’m just sticking to light sprinting and some heavy sandbag workouts once or twice a week. What about you?

In the next post I will look at the physiology of overtraining to explore in more detail what a healthy level of exercise training is so stay tuned.