Overtraining or overdoing an exercise routine carries certain risks for fitness enthusiasts. Experts offer tips on how to strike the right note.
Nikhil* (28) is an analyst by profession. All day long, he is number crunching and interpreting data off a computer screen. By late evening he is so wound up that he is ready to hit the gym with a vengeance.The goals are multi-fold: to maintain those rippling muscles he is so proud of and to work off all the stress built up during the day. Besides, there is a happiness quotient to be factored in. “I am very unhappy when I miss a session,” he says. There are days when he overreaches just a bit. There are others like Nikhil who work ever so hard to acquire a hot body. But do they realise that there are risks to over exercising? And just how much is too much?
Sports physician Dr. Kannan Pugazhendi — of the SPARRC Institute, Chennai, Coimbatore and Hyderabad — observes, “People of all age groups visit the gym and the younger ones tend to dominate. Their desire is to look good and feel good; the women are after an hourglass figure and the men after a six- to eight-pack abdomen. The results they look for are actually only a by-product; the main outcome is fitness.”
Rest is essential
According to him, overtraining and over reaching are more likely during the run-up to a competition, rather than in a regular gym situation. For normal functioning of the body, adequate rest is essential. The problem occurs “when rest is inadequate or the intensity or frequency of training is increased.” Dr. Pugazhendi also points out that exercise is not the only challenge the body encounters on a daily basis. “Exercise should be a stress buster, but if it becomes stressful then it works against us. Exercise causes sympathetic stimulation to increase the heart rate and blood pressure. Subsequently the para-sympathetic system takes over to reduce the heart rate. If the frequency and duration of the exercise sessions are too long, or if overtraining or over reaching occurs, it may take a while for the body to recover. In such a situation, all exercises must be stopped for a week or two.”
The right approach, therefore, would be to intersperse exercise sessions with sufficient rest. “Serious sportspersons, who train both morning and evening, should ensure that every fifth session is a resting session,” suggests Dr. Pugazhendi. “Fitness enthusiasts can train safely for six days a week and take the seventh day off. If this simple principle of adequate recovery is ignored, the body may become prone to injuries like a sudden back pain or unexplained neck pain or shoulder pain, as people who are gymming also work at a sedentary job for many hours the day.”
Since a toned body and washboard abs are the key reasons for excessive gymming, Dr. Pugazhendi offers some pointers. “Fat loss is ensured given the right exercise. In general, muscle-building exercises are recommended for the fast twitch muscles and fat-removing aerobic or cardio-respiratory training are recommended for the slow twitch muscles. Body toning actually refers to an increase in the state of muscle contraction even at rest.”
The crucial question is whether overtraining can damage critical organs like the heart. Dr Ajit S. Mullasari, Director Cardiology, Madras Medical Mission, says “Vigorous exercise can increase the risk of sudden cardiac death and acute myocardial infarction in susceptible persons. The warning signs are chest pain, fatigue, heartburn, laboured breathing, dizziness, severe headache and ear or neck pain. I see a lot of young people having keen interest in physical training but not many overdo their gym workouts.”
Dr. Pugazhendi also provides reassurance. “It is uncommon for regular gymming to cause any problem to the cardiovascular system. The commonest reason for problems is ignoring a viral fever and continuing to exercise, which may hurt the heart. The consequence of training during a fever can be life threatening. This applies to gym as well as sports training. The other reasons for heart problem could be an undiagnosed pre-existing condition, which should have been detected during the risk stratification before the client gets the gym membership.”
Dr. Mullasari also points out that there are guidelines for cardiac fitness exercises for people with known problems. “The simple formula in all exercise programmes is target heart rate achievement. Target heart rate is 220 minus age in years. So, for a patient who is 40 years old, the target heart rate would be 220 minus 40, which is 180. Remember, target heart rate should not be achieved on day one itself but gradually. Also aerobic exercises involving large muscle groups like walking, cycling, running and swimming are recommended for all beginners. All beginners should start with moderate intensity exercise — 50-60 per cent of target heart rate for 6-7 days a week for at least 30-60 minutes a day — for at least two weeks before they reach the target heart rate. All those over 50 years require additional medical evaluation before beginning an exercise programme. If the goal includes muscle building, weight reduction, weight increase or tummy reduction, then the program will have to be customised. Needless to say, in addition to exercise, diet and lifestyle modifications will have to go hand in hand to achieve the desired benefits.”
Signs of trouble
Here’s how you know if you are overdoing your exercise routine.
Sudden loss of appetite
Loss of weight
Failure to keep up with the training
Stagnation of performance
Loss of sleep
Susceptibility to common cold, cough and fevers
Lack of interest in meeting people
Depression or getting angry and aggressive over trivial things