I view exercise as a very powerful medication, and like any medication it can cause problems if overused. It took a long time for me to get to the point where overtraining became an issue, because, in the beginning, all I was able to do was walk for five or ten minutes a day. Since overtraining did become something that I have had to contend with, I feel obligated to cover it.
I have been hesitant to write about this because studies indicate that the vast majority of people get far too little exercise, not too much. However, this is an extremely important topic for two reasons. First, people with mental illnesses have been shown to be more susceptible to overtraining symptoms. Second, because we reap so many benefits from exercise, it can be easy to overdo things in the hope of getting even more relief from our symptoms. The problem with upping the intensity of an exercise too quickly or doing more and more exercise without a rest day, every so often, is that it can actually backfire. Here is a composite list with some of the symptoms of overtraining:
- Restless sleep
- Loss of sexual desire
- Severe aches and pains
- Constant fatigue
- Declining athletic performance
- Menstrual irregularities
- Significant sleep problems
- Prolonged muscle soreness
- Markedly diminished athletic performance
The biggest problem that I have found with overtraining is that I didn't recognize the symptoms I was experiencing as overtraining symptoms. Exercise works so well at relieving my tension, irritability, anxiety, sleeplessness, depression and mania, that when I start feeling those symptoms I often up my exercise intensity. Often, this works wonderfully and I pull through without a hitch. There are times though that I have found that this technique has made things worse.
I tried for quite some time to figure out a way to distinguish between the symptoms of overtraining and those of my depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder. I was going about the problem the wrong way. I was trying to somehow distinguish some small difference in the symptoms, but the symptoms are the same. The trick, I found, is to keep a simple exercise calendar. It has made all the difference. I don’t write lengthy journal entries with every detail of a workout. I found that I didn't have the patience to do that consistently. I simply write what I did on the date followed by a few summation words and a difficulty ranking between 1-5. For instance, on the fourth day of the month I might write: Trail Run 5.5 miles (4). Simply by glancing at that date I know that I did a rather fast paced run (by the 4) up and down hills (by it being a trail run) for 5.5 miles. If I see that the next day was similar, and the day after that I did Circuit Training 45 minutes (5), then I know that it would be wise to take a rest day.
If I don’t pay attention and keep track of what I have done, I have a tendency to overdo things. Then, I will start to get irritable; I’ll start losing sleep, and depression will start clouding my judgment. It can become a downward spiral from there. The harder I workout to alleviate my symptoms the worse they get, so I workout harder to try and fix the problem, and the next thing I know I’m in the middle of a full blown episode. Taking ten seconds to jot down a few words about my exercise sessions has helped me enormously.
Slowly upping distance, speed, duration, resistance or weight is the only way that I have found to avoid the pitfalls of overtraining. A general rule of thumb that many fitness experts recommend is to increase the duration or intensity of a workout by no more than 10% per week. I found that to be a little too much, too fast, for me. The point is, that it is only recommended to up exercise by 10% per week for healthy and fit individuals, so be careful. If overtraining does happen to occur, the cure is to simply cut back the intensity of your workouts and just walk for a few days.
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As always I wish you wonderful mental health and great successes eating healthy meals. If you, or someone you love, is severely depressed or anxious, please click the link to the right and you will be directed to the International Association for Suicide Prevention. It is a great resource, and is staffed by wonderful people.
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