The old adage "too much of a good thing" doesn't apply to puppies, chocolate or hugs, but it does apply to exercise. Overexercising can cause a collection of symptoms, referred to as overtraining syndrome, which can be deleterious to your health. It may even stall weight loss and lead to weight gain.
Overexercising can lead to hormonal and metabolic changes that can cause weight gain.
Overtraining and Weight Gain
A lot of people get a bit overzealous when they start out on an exercise program, spending hours at the gym, plodding away on the treadmill and lifting weights. At some point, they realize they have stopped feeling good after their workouts, and they are not seeing the improvements in their physiques that they noticed in the beginning. Instead of losing weight, they're gaining weight.
With a normal volume of exercise, you may gain weight because you're gaining muscle mass. If your muscle weight gain surpasses the rate at which you are losing fat, you will see the number on the scale go up, not down. But this typically isn't the case with getting too much exercise and weight gain.
While exercise is good for you, it is also a stressor. The stress of a challenging workout is what causes your body to adapt, growing stronger, building muscle and improving cardiovascular fitness. But too much of this stress can be harmful rather than helpful.
- Intense fatigue.
- Increased hunger.
- Food cravings, especially for sweets and caffeine.
- Depression, anxiety and stress.
- Reduced sleep.
- High cortisol.
- Low thyroid hormone.
- Other hormonal imbalances.
- Increased insulin.
All these symptoms can cause weight gain.
Food, Mood and Fatigue
You may be exercising a ton, but what are you eating? If you're eating unhealthy foods and too many calories, you'll gain weight no matter how much you work out. Everyone has felt the pulls of comfort and fast foods when fatigue is overwhelming — who wants to cook? So you turn to mac n' cheese instead of the healthy chicken breast and steamed veggies you were planning to eat.
Feeling depressed, anxious and stressed can also cause you to overeat and gain weight. According to a 2014 article in Frontiers in Psychology, people with altered mood and emotions will often overeat to "self-medicate." Food stimulates dopamine production, which activates reward centers in the brain that promote a positive feeling. Seeking this reward to feel better on a regular basis can lead to a high calorie intake.
Interestingly, overexercising is also tied to the emotions. In a study published in June 2018 in Addictive Behaviors Reports, people at a high risk of exercise addiction suffered depression or other emotional distress. If you are overtraining, with or without overeating, and it feels compulsive, it's a good idea to dig a little deeper to find out whether there is a psychological factor at the root of the problem.
Hypothyroidism and Other Hormonal Changes
Both psychological and physiological stress can cause changes in the functioning of your hormones. According to Amy Meyers, M.D., chronic stress causes your adrenal glands to release stress hormones including cortisol. Over time, increased cortisol levels can lead to weight gain, especially in the abdominal area, reports an April 2018 review in Current Obesity Reports.
Additionally, increases in cortisol and other stress hormones can disrupt other functions such as digestion, immune function and the production of thyroid hormones. Thyroid hormones play many roles in the body, but their main job is managing metabolism. An underactive thyroid can lead to symptoms including weight gain and the inability to lose weight.
An excess of the hormone insulin, produced by the pancreas, can also induce weight gain, according to a May 2017 review in Current Obesity Reports. Insulin is the chief metabolic hormone responsible for storing nutrients in the body after food consumption, ushering glucose into the cells for energy or for fat storage. High levels of insulin cause insulin resistance, in which the cells don't respond properly to the hormone. This can lead to greater insulin production and high blood sugar. While being overweight can cause insulin resistance, insulin resistance can also cause weight gain, especially around the midsection.
Finding a Solution
Exercise should be a positive experience that brings you increased health and vitality. If it's dragging you down — and making you gain weight — it's important to solve the problem ASAP. Taking certain steps can help you nip the problem in the bud so you can more effectively reach your health and fitness goals.
Rest. With adequate rest, all the negative effects of overtraining should subside quickly. Consider taking some time off from exercise. This will give your body time to de-stress and recover. Taking two or three weeks off will not cause you to lose your fitness gains. And, you can still do light-intensity activity such as walking and yoga.
Sleep. Overtraining is both worsened by lack of sleep and can lead to sleep problems. Your body needs adequate sleep to repair and recover. Just like people who exercise more need more calories, they also need more sleep.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, athletes and very active people need at least eight hours of sleep a night. The more you train, the more sleep you need, and some people will benefit from getting up to 10 hours of sleep per night. If you're unable to get the amount of sleep your body needs due to work and other responsibilities, think about ways to re-organize your day to make more time for sleep. Otherwise, scale back your activity level.
Good nutrition. Getting the right combination of macronutrients is key to proper recovery and stemming overtraining. The recommended dietary intake for protein for the general population is equivalent to about 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight; however more active people need more than that. According to the University of Texas, endurance athletes should get 1.2 to 1.4 grams per kilogram, and strength athletes need 1.6 to 1.7 grams per kilogram.
Carbohydrates are also key for recovery, but it is important to get them from healthy sources. Overtraining can cause you to binge on unhealthy simple carbs from sweets and refined grains, because they activate the reward centers in the brain more than healthy, complex carbs. But for overall health and proper recovery, it's crucial to avoid these. Instead go for complex carbs from fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
- MAF: "The Overtraining Syndrome"
- Frontiers in Psychology: "Mood, Food, and Obesity"
- Addictive Behaviors Reports: "Exercise Addiction Is Associated with Emotional Distress in Injured and Non-Injured Regular Exercisers"
- Amy Meyers MD: "The Adrenal-Thyroid Connection"
- Current Obesity Reports: "Stress and Obesity: Are There More Susceptible Individuals?"
- Current Obesity Reports: "Hyperinsulinemia: a Cause of Obesity?"
- NIH: "Insulin Resistance & Prediabetes"
- National Sleep Foundation: "Tricks Athletes Use to Make Sleep a Priority"
- University of Texas: "Proteins"
- ISSA: "Carbs: What You’re Skimping on Could Be Hurting You And Slowing Down Your Workout"