The most reliable signs that you’re exercising too much come from your subjective feelings of well-being, Dr. Dieffenbach said. If you’re suddenly tired all the time, or workouts that used to seem easy feel hard, or your performance has dropped unexpectedly (like your running times get slower without explanation, or your daily walk is taking longer than usual), it might be time to ramp down and rest, Dr. Dieffenbach said. Other classic signs of overtraining include trouble sleeping, feeling run down and not being able to shake minor colds and other respiratory infections. “Sometimes you have to back off to move forward,” Dr. Dieffenbach said.
If you find that you’re having to force yourself to do workouts you used to enjoy, or are feeling guilty about not exercising enough, those are other signs that you’ve overdone it. This is especially true if the feelings linger for more than a few days, Dr. Dieffenbach said. (Of course, these may also be signs of other health issues, like depression, so it’s important to keep that in mind, too.)
On the other hand, if you’re finding that your love of exercise is becoming more of an unhealthy obsession, that’s something to pay attention to as well, said Szabó Attila, a health psychologist who studies exercise addiction at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest. An exercise addiction can occur when someone feels compelled to do physical activity, even if they are in pain or injured. There isn’t one specific number of hours of exercise per week that would correlate with an exercise addiction, one of Dr. Attila’s studies from 2019 found, but “it becomes problematic when it harms other aspects of life,” he said. If you’ve put exercise before your relationships, work and everything else, Dr. Attila added, that’s a sign that it’s become too much.
One of Dr. Attila’s colleagues, Mark Griffiths, a psychologist at Nottingham Trent University in Britain, has developed six criteria for health providers to use when screening patients for exercise addiction:
1. Exercise is the most important thing in my life.
2. Conflicts have arisen between me and my family and/or my partner about the amount of exercise I do.
3. I use exercise as a way of changing my mood (e.g. to get a buzz, to escape, etc.).
4. Over time I have increased the amount of exercise I do in a day.
5. If I have to miss an exercise session I feel moody and irritable.
6. If I cut down the amount of exercise I do, and then start again, I always end up exercising as often as I did before.
To classify as an addiction, a person would need to meet all six criteria, and that’s rare, Dr. Griffiths said. But a lot of people exhibit problematic exercise that doesn’t quite reach the level of an addiction, he added. For instance, somebody who goes to work and functions normally, but then comes home and neglects their family so that they can go to the gym and workout — that’s still a problem.
Which brings us to the ultimate answer to our question: Yes, it’s possible to exercise too much. And you’ll know you’re doing it when it’s breaking down your body, making you sick or injured or adversely affecting the rest of your life. When it stops making you feel good and enriching your life, it’s time to cut back.
Christie Aschwanden is a writer based in western Colorado and the author of “Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery.”