Too much exercise can take a toll on body and mind

  • Mon Jun 28th, 2010 5:29pm
  • Life

By Leslie Barker Garcia The Dallas Morning News

What made Larry Brown’s addiction acceptable was that it was, at least on the surface, good for him.

He was in his early 40s and running an impressive 50 miles a week. So what if it consumed him, if he thought about it even when his feet weren’t methodically hitting the pavement or carrying him across a finish line; if he became angry when the weather, or something else he couldn’t control, kept him from his workout?

“My PR (personal record) in a 10K was 33:16,” says Brown, now 63. “I was good enough to where it caught me, and I was blinded by that.”

Even when he developed prostate cancer and was sitting in his doctor’s office looking at an MRI of a bone tumor in his leg, he was still focused on running.

“That was my first question,” said Brown, a Dallas insurance broker. “Not whether I could still work, or whether I’d be able to walk. It was, ‘Can I keep running?”’

At a time when two-thirds of the U.S. population is overweight, and barely half of us exercise at least three times a week, Brown seems an anomaly. Yet experts say he is far from alone. Look around the gym, or on your favorite trail. Chances are at least several people were there yesterday and — no matter what else is going on in their lives — will be there tomorrow.

Officially, this is known as overtraining syndrome. Because of the volume of workouts, it occurs primarily among professional athletes, or those training for a long event such as a marathon or triathlon. Yet most anyone who works out can exercise too much; a workout’s duration and intensity can matter as much as a compunction and compulsion to do it.

Yet there is an irony to this, says Sue Beckham, associate director of education at the Cooper Institute: Instead of leading to faster times and better health, too much exercise can be detrimental.

“The problem comes when we don’t have balance between overload and recovery,” she said.

Overexercising signs

Overexercising often leads to such physical signs as loss of appetite, insomnia, fatigue and an inability to maintain what used to be a normal workout. Some people experience depression, mood changes and loss of self-esteem. Those symptoms could be related to exhaustion or chemical changes in the body. No one really knows, Beckham said.

Even if someone doesn’t have these signs, overexercising might be taking time from other areas of their lives, such as family. As a former Ironman competitor, Beckham, who has a doctorate in physiology, knows firsthand how exercise can overtake someone’s life.

“When I was training, because of the nature of such a long event, most of the time I was doing two training sessions a day. It creates stress because it encroaches on other things you do. It’s hard to find that balance.”

Brown usually did his training runs while his wife and daughter were sleeping. He assumed that his long miles and time away didn’t affect them.

“Since I was in that kind of shape, I didn’t sense my tiredness,” Brown said. “I didn’t know I wasn’t all that easy to live with. I probably wasn’t covering my bases very well.”

Brown, who had his last cancer treatment 15 years ago, now has a rest day — Monday. He runs about 20 miles a week and takes two spin and two yoga classes a week. It’s still time-consuming, but it just feels different, he said: “I feel like there’s more joy and less intensity.”

Symptoms of overtraining

Sue Beckham of the Cooper Institute offers these signs:

  • Elevated heart rate when you wake up.
  • Trouble sleeping.

    In your normal workout, your legs are heavier. You’re not recovering as well.

    Appetite has decreased.

    Developing respiratory infections.

    Nagging injuries that don’t go away.

    Mood swings.

    Plummeting self-esteem.

    Depression.

    How to ease up

  • Keep a training log.

    Make yourself take a day off.

    Consider hiring a coach.

    Be sure you’re sleeping well and eating well.

    If you can’t seem to ease up, seek professional help.