Exercise burnout is a very real problem that millions of people face every day, perhaps without even knowing it. We’ve all experienced feeling tired after a heavy workout, but if you’re run down and quickly losing interest in workouts you once loved, then the experts say it may be time to take a step back.
As with everything in life, you can have too much of a good thing when it comes to exercise. Not only does high-intensity movement put significant pressure on the body’s cardiovascular and musculoskeletal system, but it also puts pressure on the brain. Exercise makes us feel good, yet at the same time, it can contribute to feelings of stress and complete exhaustion if we do too much of it without adequate rest.
Luckily though, it’s also entirely possible to learn how to recover from burnout and avoid this particular type of stress turning into habitual burnout in the future. Here, a high-performance psychologist and a personal trainer explain all there is to know about exercise burnout, the signs to look out for, and how to recover to get back on track.
Can you get exercise burnout?
Yes, absolutely, and there's a big difference between exercise stress vs burnout. “Exercise burnout is a state where the mind and the body are run down. You may continuously feel exhausted, lose any interest in exercising, and feel unable to make these negative feelings disappear,” explains Dr Aria Campbell-Danesh, a high-performance psychologist and expert in behavior change.
We're used to hearing all about the benefits of exercise, with studies from the likes of the University of Lisbon positively linking higher levels of physical activity with better wellbeing, quality of life, lower depressive symptoms, anxiety, and stress, all independently of age. This is the case for most people, but those who overexercise are at risk of reversing these benefits.
As a review by Massachusetts General Hospital explains, those who overtrain are susceptible to changes to both the parasympathetic (rest and digest functions) and sympathetic (fight or flight responses) nervous systems. These changes manifest as symptoms like fatigue, depression, a loss of workout motivation, anxiety, insomnia, and hypertension.
“At the core of exercise burnout are two critical factors, overtraining and under-recovery,” Dr Aria says. “When we exercise, we stress our mental and physical systems. With adequate rest, these systems respond by growing. Stress plus rest equals growth, so exercise stress may be inevitable but exercise burnout is preventable.”
It's also a condition that’s relatively common in the fitness world, thanks to the onus on pushing yourself to get better, stronger, and faster in many cases. “Overtraining syndrome, otherwise known as burnout, is serious,” explains Luke Hughes, a level 4 personal trainer with an MSc in Sport and Nutrition. “It’s more commonly associated with athletes but it’s a condition that rises when a person experiences declining performance and fatigue despite continuing or increasing their training.”
Signs of exercise burnout
The biggest signs of exercise burnout are extreme tiredness, delayed recovery, and lower performance, says Dr Aria, who is also the author of A Mindful Year. “The mind and the body are intimately connected. This type of burnout impacts us physically and mentally as our reserves become depleted, we feel drained, unmotivated, bored, and begin to dread even the thought of exercising.” Here’s how to spot the signs:
This one’s easy - you just feel mentally and physically exhausted. “Tiredness is perfectly normal after exercise and is usually a sign of a successful workout,” says Hughes, who is also the founder of Origym. “However, fatigue isn’t the same as drowsiness or feeling sleepy. Fatigue from exercise burnout is a feeling of overwhelming tiredness that isn’t relieved by rest or sleep.”
2. Reduced motivation
“When you’re approaching exercise burnout, your motivation drops significantly,” Dr Aria says. “While in the past you may have found ways to push past the temptation to avoid exercising, with burnout this seems like an impossible task.”
3. Feeling tense
Mood swings are a big sign you’re approaching exercise burnout, says Hughes. “Training too intensely or too often when your body wants to rest can severely affect your stress hormones,” he says, pointing to a study by the University of North Carolina. “So aside from frustration and grouchiness, overtraining can be a catalyst for brain fog and depression in some cases.”
While it may be difficult to pinpoint exercise as the reason behind this feeling, Dr Aria suggests looking out for feelings of being off-center or just not yourself. “You might find yourself lashing out at others or crying at things you otherwise would find small. This can be a sign that you need to look after yourself emotionally and physically.”
4. You're getting ill more
Burnout is otherwise described as being ‘run down’ for a reason. “Illnesses can be picked up frequently but it can also be one of the signs of overtraining,” says Hughes. “The reason behind this is a lower immune system due to your body being in a constant catabolic state.”
This is the process of mass burning, both fat and muscle, when the two parts of our metabolism - anabolism and catabolism - become unbalanced. According to a study by Yale University School of Medicine, this has a significant effect on our immune system because the higher functioning your metabolism is, the more able your body is to convert fuel into energy and provide the cells it needs to fight disease.
Along with regular colds and flu, which will likely pull you away from exercise for a week or so, joint pain and muscle pain are also more common.
5. Weight gain
If you’re dieting but not losing weight, then exercise burnout could certainly be a contributing factor. Exercise is a great way to push yourself into a strong calorie deficit, Hughes explains, but it can trigger hormone fluctuations that prevent you from losing weight and it may make it easier to gain weight.
“Demanding exercise regimes can produce increased levels of the body’s main stress hormone, cortisol, and decrease testosterone levels,” he says. “While cortisol is important for the body, increased levels of it have been associated with other common signs and symptoms of overtraining such as inflammation, sleep disturbances, and excess stomach fat.”
How long does it take to recover from exercise burnout?
Recovery from exercise burnout takes anywhere from a few days to two weeks, says Hughes, as long as adequate rest is achieved.
“However, a diagnosis of overtraining syndrome may be made if the fatigue becomes so severe that recovery doesn’t occur after two weeks of adequate rest,” warns Hughes. “This is a reason why it’s so important to pay attention to the early warning signs of overtraining so you can stop it from getting worse.”
How to recover from exercise burnout
Exercise burnout is a sign to dial down the intensity of your workouts and rest more, says Dr Aria. “You may need to permit yourself to take time off planned exercise activities. Remind yourself that this is a long game and that after a short break you can slowly and steadily build up your physical activity in a sustainable way.”
Hughes agrees, adding that when you’re feeling fatigued, you run the risk of exposing your body to repetitive strain injuries and potential accidents. “Sustaining a potentially serious injury will set you back much further than taking extra rest days in the long run,” he says. “Pay attention to your body and increase your rest times, a day or two should help you learn how to avoid burnout from exercise.”
For how long exactly? “It’s best to cease working out for at least a week,” he adds. “You may have to cancel or reschedule workouts if symptoms are severe but this doesn't mean you have to stay in bed for a week. Light activities like walking or stretching can still be done, just avoid anything likely to put pressure on the body.”
The NHS states that adults need between six to nine hours of sleep every night, but this is especially necessary if you’re experiencing the signs and symptoms of overtraining as it’s likely your body is in dire need of sleep.
“An established bedtime routine with a set time to go to sleep and wake up will also help to reduce the feeling of fatigue and burnout,” explains Hughes, “It may be difficult at first, but you’ll be surprised how accustomed your body becomes to a sleeping routine.”
During exercise, your body loses a lot of fluids and minerals. One of the reasons behind burnout could also be failing to restore this loss, explains Hughes. “It’s important to ensure you’re fueling it sufficiently and restoring anything lost through exercise,” he says.
“Drink plenty of water during and after training to replace the lost fluids through perspiration. Make sure you’re consuming enough calories as well as utilizing the health benefits of protein and carbohydrates, as this will help your body with recovery.”
The restorative phase of exercise burnout recovery should also be about mental recovery too, explains Dr Aria. “One way through this is to find the joy again in moving your body,” he says. “Even if that’s a gentle stroll in the park, throwing a ball around in the garden, or trying something you haven’t done in a while like going for a cycle.”
When it comes to exercising again, incorporating a bit of variety into your routine will likely help you consider where you were going wrong before.
“This doesn’t mean you have to give it up, but it may be good to take a break and try something else or try lowering the intensity and duration of your workout,” says Hughes. “Reflect on where you may be going wrong and take it down a notch.”
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A digital health journalist with over six years of experience writing and editing for UK publications, Grace has covered the world of health and wellbeing extensively for Cosmopolitan, The i Paper and more.
She started her career writing about the complexities of sex and relationships, before combining personal hobbies with professional and writing about fitness as well. Everything from the best protein powder to dating apps, the latest health trend to nutrition essentials, Grace has a huge spectrum of interests in the wellness sphere. Having reported on the coronavirus pandemic since the very first swab, she now also counts public health among them.
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