When Exercise Is Bad for You

Exercise gets a lot of press about being the panacea to all our ailments, from high cholesterol and insulin resistance to depression and obesity. While studies show its efficacy as a positive influence in a myriad of conditions, exercise also causes damage. Being unaware of or just outright ignoring the signs means we might lose the potential benefits of doing what we love; even worse, it could have a lasting, negative impact on our health. Does that mean we can’t run marathons? Is this a free pass to drag ourselves to the gym? Perhaps.

The most common ways in which exercise becomes unhealthy are overtraining and overuse. Overtraining is a question of what is often referred to as volume and intensity. When we head out for an hour jog at moderate intensity, it places different demands on the body than a four hour run at low intensity or a forty minute run at high intensity. Both the long run and the intense run cause an increase in stress hormones that cause oxidative stress and promote inflammation. In moderate amounts, this can stimulate cell regeneration and help us improve our performance. Too much of it causes fatigue and damage.

Overuse is the result of doing too much of the same thing. Want to try a 30-day challenge of 100 burpees? “That’s the quickest way to get an overuse injury,” says Kenny Markwardt, owner of CrossFit Sandpoint. A single movement or area of the body gets taxed in the same way without the ability to recover properly. This results in ‘common injuries’ for specific sports, like Runner’s Knee and Tennis Elbow.

Sometimes overtraining occurs because people have other stressors in their lives they are ignoring while remaining loyal to a training plan. It’s hard for people to identify because it can often feel like the usual lack of motivation we suffer on Monday mornings. Markwardt says there are some telltale signs, among them: trouble falling asleep even when you’re tired, decrease in grip strength or vertical jump, decrease in performance, lack of gains or improvement, and the much-feared loss of the morning erection. “I’m not sure what the female equivalent of that is,” he notes. (I’d venture: apathy about that loss.)

Overuse tends to feel more like a nagging or impending injury. We often treat this by swallowing some ibuprofen and carrying on anyway. Inflammation (and the related pain signals) is a protective mechanism in our body. The body sends specific hormones to the area called prostaglandins to increase the cellular pressure, allowing materials to move in and out of the injured tissues faster, and also to protect the site of injury. Taking anti-inflammatories eliminates the production of those prostaglandins and thus the pain-causing inflammation.  It also eliminates its important healing properties so we can go out and slam around that joint or those shin splints some more.

The solution for both is to ease off and change it up. “Adjust the focus of training to corrective stuff and mobility,” says Markwardt. Instead of worrying about stamina, strength, or speed, use training time to improve efficiency and mobilize areas of the body where mechanics may have played a role in the injury. And change the movements. If you’ve got a running injury, enjoy some light aerobic cycling or swimming, for example.

And don’t forget the sleep, good nutrition, and enough time for recovery. The next time you’re not feeling like your workout, assess your training load or your pain level, and maybe take a proactive recovery day. Your body will thank you. If you’ve managed to exercise yourself into a problem, you probably won’t exercise your way out of it. //

Ammi Midstokke recently took up extreme knitting and the banjo while recovering from an injury. Last month, she wrote about radical acceptance of one’s body.

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