We see it in countless Mount Pleasant and Charleston gyms: People pushing themselves to exhaustion during their workouts on a weekly basis.  And we’re not just talking about breaking a sweat or hitting a PR.  We’re talking about trying to train to the limit every time you step into the gym.  There is a social standard being set that has helped popularize the urge to train like a super-human—and its not just a local workout phenomenon.  A telling article in The New York Times explains it this way, “There’s [a] very American fixation on extremes at play: More is always better. If you’re running just four miles a day and doing a few pull-ups, you’re a wimp compared with the buff dude who’s ready for an appearance on “American Ninja Warrior.” 

In this age of a the “quick fix”, society seems to be telling us to do MORE and do it NOW in order to get fit. But it turns out that taking time to allow your body to rest and recover is JUST AS IMPORTANT as pushing it hard in the gym. 


It seems counter-intuitive: In order to maximize your fitness routine or workout, you need to take a break from the gym.  But The Active Times puts it this way, “Sometimes we take on that frantic ‘must work out every day’ mindset and completely forget that one of the most important parts of exercising effectively is giving our bodies time to recover.”  The article continues by quoting Russell Wynter a NASM certified master trainer and co-owner of MadSweat: ‘We have become an all or nothing society…People don’t know how to exercise properly. If you follow what everyone else is doing or the latest fad program, more often than not it will do more harm than good.”  That harm can be as simple as fatigue to as serious as permanent muscle damage.

And beyond the potential for injury, working out too much goes the other direction as well.  Ironically, spending too much energy “maxing out” is LESS EFFECTIVE than taking intentional breaks.   According to The American Council on Exercise, “The reality of exercise is that you don’t make progress when you work out—you make progress when you recover from the workout. The workout is the stimulus, while recovery and improvement is the physical response.”


So what does “recovery” mean?  ACE explains, “The one important factor to remember about recovery is that it is largely about tissue regeneration and nutrient delivery. Exercise creates a physical stimulus for the body to get better at the challenge with which it was presented and that can only happen if there is blood flow. Circulation brings nutrients to the tissues, nutrients provide the material to facilitate the improvement, and circulation is enhanced by movement.” 

So essentially, while one should not be maxing out on a “recovery day”, you should still be active.  It’s still okay to go to the gym—just don’t go for a PR every time you run, lift or take a group fitness class.   A  healthy, productive fitness routine should include a BALANCE of extreme or “pushing it” days mixed with days where you enjoy moderate exertion.  “ Each day of the week should contain decent amounts of movement, while some days will also contain a challenging workout. Movement is a daily occurrence. A rest day is really any non-training day—a day where you remove the challenge of hard exercise. So it might even include some exercise-type activities, provided the intensity is manipulated to avoid providing a physical demand that is at or above current abilities.”   


So how do you know if you’re pushing it too hard? The Daily Burn lists “Five Signs It’s Time to Take a Rest Day”.  Scary symptoms like an irregular heart rate, dark urine and constant muscle soreness and joint stiffness are on there, but the list also includes some subtler indications of overdoing it, including mood swings: “Moodiness, depression and fatigue [are] indications that you might be overtraining. Most of us have heard that exercise is supposed to make us happier, thanks to a rush of endorphins — a stress-fighting chemical — in the brain…However, those endorphins are also accompanied by cortisol, a stress hormone. And when cortisol levels remain high for an extended period, they take a toll on mental health.”

It turns out that instead of the intended result of making you fitter and healthier, working out too much has the opposite effect of actually hurting your body and ruining your mood.  Shape Magazine takes a similar position on the topic of workout recovery siting issues like insomnia, overeating, amenorrhea and burnout as potential consequences of overexertion.  Shape sums it up perfectly: “In the end, life is about balance. We all have limited resources—time, energy, money, physical reserves—and spending too much of them on exercise can lead to burnout. It’s better to commit to a sane program that fits in with your schedule and goals than to go all out and want to quit after one month. Exercise is a lifelong pursuit, and it should make you happy. Find a balance that works for you—your body and your life.”