Do you work out every day and worry that you’re “addicted?” Well, let’s ask another question: Do you skip social events for an intense sweat session? Or how about being so sore or injured that you get less out of taking your favorite class? If the answers are yes, you’re probably a classic over doer. To score the most from exercise, you only need to go hard three or four times a week. But in our more-is-better world, when CrossFit and killer boot camps are the norm, we fear this idea falls on deaf ears.
The fact is, hitting the gym too often can make you less fit. And, shocker: It can even pack on pounds. “The benefits you want from working out—getting leaner, stronger, healthier—reverse when you don’t take breaks,” says Holly Parker, Ph.D., a lecturer in the psychology department at Harvard University and a certified personal trainer. Skeptical? Hear us out.
For starters, your muscles aren’t designed to kill it 24/7. Exercise creates tiny tears in muscle fiber, and when given a chance to heal, the fibers build up. But without recovery, you won’t see those changes in tone or strength, Parker says. You’re also stressing out your body if you’re crushing Spin or a run day after day. That triggers a surge in the hormone cortisol, says Michele Olson, Ph.D., professor of exercise physiology at Auburn University in Montgomery, Alabama, which studies have linked to belly fat. The uptick in cortisol prevents testosterone, which helps build muscle tissue, from doing its job, so definition suffers, Olson says. Meanwhile, your metabolism hits the brakes to conserve energy. In extreme cases, menstruation goes MIA; again, it’s your body’s effort to save calories. (As annoying as your period is, it does zap cals.)
More isn’t always more. Too much exercise can leave you exhausted, and the extra sweating doesn’t always pay off. Research backs this up: When Danish scientists had couch potatoes do either three and a half or seven hours of cardio a week, the group that sweat less lost just as much weight despite burning half the calories during planned sessions. Why? The exercisers who did less actually had extra energy, and scientists think it made them want to move more throughout the day rather than do a face-plant on the couch post-workout.
But oh, the guilt. Overexercising can have a sneaky psychological drawback. It traps you into a cycle of believing that if you let a day go by without logging a workout, you’ll get fat or instantly fall out of shape. Untrue (it takes a lot longer than that to decondition your body), but that fear of not exercising causes you to give facets of your life short shrift in an effort to keep up your habit—canceling plans, opting out of seeing friends, doing a half-assed job at work. The few times you do miss a sesh, you feel stressed and guilty, which can only put another dent in your relationships and career, Parker says. “Working out should enhance your life: friends, job, body and mind,” she says. Our tips below will help you make that happen.
Work Out, Don’t Burn Out
Rethink a rest day. Shake the mind-set that equates taking a day off with being lazy. The smartest workout plan you can have is alternating tough days with more moderate ones, Parker says, and having a true break day. It isn’t an alternative to a good workout—it’s a complement to one, she says, allowing your body the opportunity to recover, rebuild and get stronger and leaner. That doesn’t mean you have to lie around the whole time. Go for an easy hike or bike ride, Parker says, as long as it really is light and not stressing your muscles.
Put quality over quantity. Instead of being obsessed with notching a daily workout, make each workout count—and then be satisfied when you’re done. Runners have a phrase for this: “no junk miles.” It means you opt out of extra jogs that will hinder your recovery, steal energy from a future session and may even lead you to get injured.
Beat withdrawal. Whether you miss a planned workout and feel anxious and fidgety, or you’re finding it impossible to convince yourself to take a day off, Parker suggests a quickie workout. Do 5 minutes of cardio (like jumping jacks) and 5 minutes of body-weight moves (like push-ups and squats). The 10-minute routine helps you de-stress and generate some mood-boosting endorphins without overtaxing your body. Most importantly, it helps you move on with your day.
Enlist a pro. If dialing back daily hard-core exercise is still tough, try a personal trainer, even if it’s just for one session, Parker advises. He or she can help map out the perfect week of workouts that line up with your goals. A trainer can also be a good sounding board and talk you off the ledge if you’re feeling slackerlike or guilty. Your fitter, healthier body will provide mega motivation, too.