Exercise intensity and over-training

I was having an online discussion with a physician who was poo-pooing yoga as being “woo” a few months back. Needless to say, I disagreed with his position, as I see great value in yoga on a number of levels, particularly for teaching good postural alignment, proper breathing, balance, and functional strengthening, not to mention the concepts of being present in the moment, acceptance of what is, and learning to let go, both physically and psychologically. The major point I was trying to make was that for many people, yoga or other quiet exercise will do far more to improve health status than a vigorous cardiovascular or strength workout. From his response, it was clear he thought I came straight out of the loony bin, but that’s okay. I see dialogue as valuable – the more ideas shared, the more familiarity and hopefully understanding between the healing professions over time. (I did try and clarify, as I felt he had misunderstood my point.)

It is well accepted that in healthy people a good workout causes one’s heart-rate to go up, breathing rate to go up, increases the heat in the body, causes the body to shunt blood away from the digestive tract and into the working muscles, all which form a part of the sympathetic (fight and flight) response. Then, as one recovers from the workout, the beneficiary is the parasympathetic (rest and repair) system which increases in tone resulting in lower resting heart-rates, lower blood pressure, stronger muscles and bones etc, and better overall health.  This is the exercise response we want and why exercise is promoted.

If an athlete were to go into an over-training state from doing too frequent high-intensity workouts with inadequate recover time, according to exercise physiologist and Olympic trainer, Tudor Bompa in his book Theory and Methodology of Training: The Key to Athletic Performance, the symptoms may include insomnia, increased excitability, lack of appetite, poor heart-rate recovery, digestive disturbances, slower recovery rate, more prone to skin and tissue disturbances – these are all symptoms of sympathetic dominance. In order to recover, the athlete would have to abandon all high-intensity workouts, and reduce stress levels as much as possible. The only exercise recommended would be light, rhythmical exercise.

I would argue that a surprisingly high percentage of the population, particularly women in mid-life, have a lot of those above-mentioned symptoms, although not necessarily due to over-exercising. These people are in sympathetic dominance for other reasons, like work stress, time stress, family stress, money stress, nutritional stress, inadequate sleep and dark time, chronic pain – whatever. The body does not make the distinction with respect to the kind of stress – the response is always the same. So, if an athlete is told to stop high-intensity training when they are in sympathetic overload, does it make sense for anyone to do high-intensity cardio or strength training when in that state? I don’t think so. If the goal is health, fitness and weight loss, exercising hard while in sympathetic overload won’t work. (The calories in vs. calories out concept doesn’t work well if your cortisol levels are high, which is why drugs like prednisone and other corticosteroids frequently cause weight gain.)

Instead, the sort of exercise that is appropriate is relaxing exercise that does not overly raise heart rates and breathing rates, and does not overly disturb digestion (parasympathetic exercise) like walking, yoga, tai chi, qi gong and other forms of exercise done slowly and with the breath.

If one is accustomed to doing hard exercise on a regular basis, even if one is depleted, it is often very psychologically difficult to slow down because somehow it is ingrained into our psyche that exercising harder/longer will give better results. Frequently people simply don’t believe me when I tell them to stop doing long-duration cardio training if their goal is weight-loss, as the body perceives that activity as a stress, which raises cortisol levels and makes it tough to lose fat. If the body is overly stressed, walking will work better than running.

So, how do you know whether parasympathetic-type exercise may be more appropriate for you? Do you frequently drag yourself out of bed when the alarm goes off in the morning? Do you regularly feel unrested in the morning? Do you frequently have times in the day where you would really like a nap? Do you need coffee or other stimulants to get through your day? Do you frequently have trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep at night? Do you have chronic digestive or other health issues, or are you in pain frequently? Are you under a fair bit of emotional stress? If you answered yes to more than one question, parasympathetic-type exercise will give you energy and improve your health, whereas sympathetic exercise (hard exercise) will drain you and worsen your health.

Related Tips
The autonomic nervous system and fat loss
Cortisol, our stress hormone
Acute vs Chronic Stress
Exercise – how often, how long, how hard?

Bompa, Tudor Theory and Methodology of Training: The Key to Athletic Performance Kendall Hunt Pub. 1997
Mastorakos G et al. Exercise and the stress system. Hormones (Athens). 2005 Apr-Jun;4(2):73-89.
Mastorakos G et al. Exercise as a stress model and the interplay between the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal and the hypothalamus-pituitary-thyroid axes. Horm Metab Res. 2005 Sep;37(9):577-84.
Chek, Paul, Balancing the autonomic nervous system Online
Chek, Paul Zone exercises for balancing stress and building vitality Online

Copyright 2007 Vreni Gurd


  1. Robert Halili said,

    November 6, 2011 @ 9:54 am

    This article is spot on. I was taught to go hard every time and rest 48 hours only to realize now that I’m nearing 50 to rest 4 days between workouts for particular body parts. A good sign for me that I’m not yet recovered is if I’m bloated. For some reason my body feels fat when I’m overtrained. It is only when I get enough sleep and rest days that my body feels tight and stronger. My other signs of overtraining is feeling blah and anything I eat goes straight to the toilet. I wish someone would write an exercise book for hard trainers that are now in their 40’s to 60’s as most books cater to young athletes where 4 sets per exercise is recommended. I’ve had to significantly reduce my workload as my time, energy, and vanity are either no longer there or in very short supply.

  2. Martin said,

    November 6, 2011 @ 12:44 pm

    Hi Vreni, great article. I absolutely agree especially in case of unconditioned or new to exercise client.

    I see this over and over again. Many new clients who sign up to bootcamps to get their body fat under control (they are stressed about their body image) only find out that after spending hours and hours pushing themselves very hard (HIT cardio is very popular these days among bootcamps) they are not losing much weight.

    So in the end they are getting triple the stress (stress from not being fit, stress from the actual exercise (training 4 times or more per week at HIT intervals) and finally stress from not seeing the results coming despite the great efforts.

    Proper assessment in the beginning of any training program would reveal the current amount of stress of each individual and a proper EXERCISE TO THAT LEVEL of stress would make a huge difference for many struggling bootcampers out there.

    Slow down people!!

    Keep up the great work Vreni

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