For those of us who aren’t essential workers, this new quarantine lifestyle means we have a lot more time on our hands. But, let’s be honest, there’s only so much Netflix you can watch before you start to get really tired of sitting on the couch. Luckily, at-home exercise is a great option right now–everything from outdoor running (six feet apart, of course), to yoga apps to group fitness classes on Zoom.
With these extra hours in the day, you may be tempted to ramp up your workouts to be longer and more intense than usual—especially if you’re going stir crazy indoors. After all, exercise is good for you, right? Yes, but there’s a catch, says Sabrena Jo, director of Science and Research at the American Council on Exercise in San Diego, California. Too much exercise may result in muscle stiffness, fatigue, and even a higher susceptibility to illness. So, before you double up your usual running mileage or do a back-to-back HIIT sesh, pay attention to what your body needs.
It’s been well-documented by researchers that regular exercise contributes positively to your physical and emotional health. A review in the International Journal of Clinical Practice asserted that apart from not smoking, being physically active is the most important factor in determining your overall health throughout your life.
But “How much exercise do I need?” is a question that’s different for everyone, Jo explains. “’Too much’ exercise is subjective, because what might be considered excessive for one person could be just fine for another,” she says. It depends on your prior fitness level, lifestyle, and pre-existing conditions or injuries.
The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week for adults, which shakes out to 30 minutes, five days a week. This is a good goal to keep in mind, but it’s not a hard-and-fast rule for optimal health. “It’s best to pay attention to feelings of muscular soreness, stiffness, and fatigue,” Jo says. “If those feelings are present, even if you’re doing the recommended amount of activity according to public health guidelines, you should decrease the frequency of activity.”
“Listen to your body” is an oft-repeated mantra in the fitness community, and it’s popular for a reason. Muscle tightness, exhaustion, and joint pain are all signs that your body is under stress. A 2019 study tested endurance athletes to understand the effects of burnout from over-training. Researchers found that the exertion not only impacted their athletic performance, but it also contributed to cognitive decline. In other words, their excessive exercise hampered their ability to think rationally and make decisions.
Jo explains that over-exercise can deplete your body of crucial energy stores. “Lengthy bouts of endurance exercise performed at vigorous intensities repeated daily could deplete energy reserves – glycogen or stored carbohydrates in the liver and muscles,” she says. And if you’re not resting adequately and eating healthy carbohydrates to replenish your body, you’ll likely continue to feel exhausted after every intense workout (and not in a good way).
There’s another reason that it’s especially important to moderate your workouts right now. Studies have shown that too much exercise can actually lower your immunity, making you more susceptible to viral illnesses. (Yep, like COVID-19.) One 2018 study of the Finnish Olympic team found that 45% of the athletes contracted the common cold within a three-week period, which researchers noted could have a connection to the high physical stress placed on their bodies, as well as the cold temperatures they endured.
To be fair, this is a much-debated subject in the scientific community. Research has also revealed that moderate exercise decreases your risk of illness. There is general consensus that physical activity is a good thing for pretty much everyone whose body can handle it. One 2018 study contested the idea that a single bout of intense exercise has a definitive negative impact on immunity, saying instead that it likely increases your immune function over time.
It’s complicated, and there’s no one “right answer” about how much exercise is safe for each person. “There's a fine line right now for people to walk,” acknowledges Phoenix, AZ-based fitness coach David Jack. “We need to exercise and exert and release neurochemicals, pump oxygen and nutrition to our cells, and get ‘out of our thoughts’ for a bit.” At the same time, Jack notes, we’re all dealing with a lot of stressors at once: “changes in socialization, travel, freedoms, finances, futures, [and] vocations.” That’s a massive amount of things for any one person to process – let alone while you’re cooped up at home.
As you determine what level of activity works for you, here are some tips to keep in mind:
So, you accidentally overdid it during dance cardio yesterday and now you feel too sore. We’ve all been there. Now that you know you need to tone it down, here’s what you can do to give your body the TLC it needs.
Take a break. It’s probably time for a rest day (or two, or three). “Take a break from the activity that caused the stress for at least a day or two,” Jo says. That’s not to say you have to sit inside all day–you can still go for a leisurely walk or do some light stretching. But your body needs time to heal and replenish its energy. Streeeeetch. It can feel like torture to stretch out sore muscles, but as long as you’re careful about it, it can often help reduce tightness. “Lightly foam roll and stretch affected areas,” says Jack, as long as it’s not too sensitive or acutely painful–in which case you should give it a full break for a few days. Hydrate and eat well. Jack notes that proper hydration and a healthy diet are important keys to recovery. It’s also good to get some sunshine (UV protected!), and take your regular vitamins and supplements, along with fresh fruits and veggies. Lighten up. From this point forward, make it a priority to pay attention to your body. “Let go of stress and fear and worry about fitness,” Jack says. “Stop chasing it for a goal that just isn't realistic and use it now to feel better first.”
Only you can decide how much exercise is the right amount to make you feel healthy and happy. Stay active and keep moving, but don’t beat yourself up if you need a rest day or two. Your body and mind deserve love right now (and always), so focus on doing whatever makes you feel most energized.