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Chronic Cardio. Is There Such Thing As Too Much?

I keep seeing post after post, both on Facebook and Instagram, from people who are doing insane amounts of exercise and glorifying it like it’s a measure of honor. And then being commended for their level of dedication and motivation by their friends and followers. Would these people still commend them if they knew the level of damage being done? It’s not inspirational, motivational, or a sign of dedication. It’s not something to be admired or something to aspire to. It’s downright dangerous to your metabolic health and it needs more awareness.

I realize it doesn’t help that the “expert” advice is to do 45-60 minutes of intense aerobic activity every day. That right there is an oxymoron. If it’s intense aerobic activity, chances are high that the body is being pushed above its maximum aerobic heart rate and straight into the anaerobic zone (without oxygen). That’s a recipe for hormonal and oxidative disaster. Why would they recommend such detrimental guidelines? Because they don’t understand the basic physiology of our human blueprint and still subscribe to the archaic notion that it’s simply about calories in and calories out. If that truly were the case, we wouldn’t be faced with an obesity epidemic. Especially while millions of people continue to buy into the ideal of restricting calories and killing it in the gym at least 5 days a week, yet still struggle to lose the unwanted pounds that slowly creep on every year. Eat less, move more doesn’t seem to be the cure, yet it continues to be prescribed by fitness experts and medical practitioners around the country.

It’s the spin classes that jack your heart rate for almost an entire hour. Multiple fitness classes per week that bump your heart rate into the anaerobic zone repeatedly. Running on the treadmill or elliptical for several miles every single day as you chase the elusive goal of body fat reduction. Weight-lifting sessions 4-5 days a week that push your heart rate above the fat-burning zone and don’t allow the muscles ample time to recover in between. Doing metabolic or high intensity workouts every time you train because you believe you need to work out harder to see results. It’s the mindset that if you’re not dripping in sweat or don’t have to peel yourself off the floor when you are done, then you didn’t work hard enough. No pain, no gain. Go hard or go home. If you still look cute at the end of your workout, you didn’t train hard enough. NO. JUST NO!

This mentality will directly lead to overtraining. Overtraining leads to chronic inflammation, increased risk of injury, accelerated aging, decreased immune function, increased free radical production, chronic high levels of cortisol (stress hormone), decreased testosterone production, muscle catabolism, and it encourages the body to store fat because it doesn’t know how to properly metabolize it. So wait, hours upon hours of exercise can actually cause the body to store fat instead of burn it? Absolutely! Especially when you combine it with the high level of carbs (sugar) it takes to fuel these workouts.

The body’s hormone function is a delicate balance and one that has to be honored and protected. We don’t do that by pushing our bodies to the limit every time we workout. Excess cortisol production triggers the process of gluconeogenesis, the body’s ability to make glucose from amino acids. What does that mean for you? That your body is releasing insulin to transport the glucose into your cells. So even when you’re not eating carbs, your insulin response is being activated. Excessive insulin production leads to diminished function of appetite hormones, sleep hormones, sex hormones, thyroid hormones, and stress hormones. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my training to lead to increased appetite, inefficient sleep, chronic levels of stress, compromised thyroid function, and decreased libido. That doesn’t exactly sound like the best path to health. Unfortunately, it’s something I know personally.

I was at a point where I was having to push harder every workout because what I was doing before was no longer working for me. I couldn’t lose the stubborn layer of fat, I was losing hard-earned muscle, and I was exhausted all the time. Yet I kept trying to push my body through it because I just knew it was the only way. It became so mental for me. I beat myself up over missed workouts and what I viewed as missed opportunities to make gains. I chastised myself for not being able to reach the level of leanness I desired and convinced myself I only needed to be more disciplined and push harder. It was that simple. Just push harder! Do more! Meanwhile, I continued to drive my hormones and thyroid function into the ground. My circadian rhythm was completely flipped. I was spiking cortisol in the evenings and in spite of being physically exhausted, I would go to bed wired and unable to fall asleep. And then I could barely drag myself out of bed in the mornings. I could sleep for 12 hours and never feel completely rested and recovered. Instead of being tuned in to the signals my body was sending me, I continued to push against it and try to outsmart it, all in the name of “fitness”!

If you’re having to do hours of cardio or other workouts a day just to maintain, or even see a little bit of change, then it’s time for you to dig deeper. It’s time to reevaluate everything you are doing. Take a good look at what you’re eating. Investigate what your hormones are doing. Get your thyroid and adrenals tested. It’s time to take care of yourself and the only body you have. Figure out how to manage your workouts to get the most out of them. Workouts should be adding to your health, not depleting it. Workouts should be optimizing your hormones, not destroying them. Most of all, workouts should be fun and make you feel good, not a source of punishment or how you earn your food. There’s definitely a better way. My goal is to help others realize that exercise is not a means for weight loss, but can be used to enhance it when used correctly. My goal is to educate them about a better way to achieve overall fitness. And to do it before they reach the metabolically-damaged state I did.