In my experience there are essentially two types of people – those working out too much – and those who workout too little. “Too much” and “too little” however, deserve definitions. Nearly everything we do adds stress to our body’s which must be cleared during sleep. Exercise is stressful. Working out is particularly stressful because it’s a concentrated amount of movement in a short period of time. As I mentioned in a previous article – the autonomic nervous system (subconscious) works in two gears – sympathetic (expressing energy) – and parasympathetic (receiving energy). So what I really find in the majority of the athletes I work with is a sympathetic dominance – they express too much energy too often and therefore show signs of burnout, overtraining, under-recovering, etc. On the other side of the spectrum are those struggling to lose weight – their musculatures and nervous systems have forgotten how to express energy as quickly as they receive energy, and so they carry that energy as fat. While it’s possible that they exist in a parasympathetic state more often than not – simply being fat does not mean that you have no stress. Fat storage is actually a very common stress response – as the body enters shock mode it tries to meet that stressor with additional energy. The trouble here being that often times our stressors are not physical and do not require more calories. Enough about stress for now.
Just because working out is stressful doesn’t mean it’s going to have a negative effect on our health. Working out is a luxury – an expression of energy we have acquired because we are fortunate enough to live in a state of relatively strong food security. We train to acquire physical ability not yet possessed. This process is simple: work hard, rest, grow, repeat. Seeing it in this light, there are two pieces of advice I have for the two majorities I’ve found in the population. To all the gym goers and athletes, people already exercising consistently: if you’re training even just three times a week, but don’t look forward to your next workout, take more days off. If you don’t feel energized, chances are, you’re not done recovering. If the goal of your training is ultimately to improve your health, shouldn’t you be feeling healthier day to day?
To all the people who’ve done less than three intense workouts in the past two weeks: walk more. Walking is the activity which humans have evolved to spend the most time doing. While walking, neither your heart nor your muscles are taxed – but both are in motion. Body’s in motion stay in motion. Chances are if you consistently walk for an hour every evening, you’ll be feeling much more energized and fight less internal resistance on the way to the gym next time.
Finally, some general guidelines in terms of exercise frequency, assuming all outside life stressors are accounted for. High intensity cardiovascular exercise, or HIIT sessions are roughly on equal ground with a lower body weight training session. They tax your respiratory systems and musculatures, respectively, but both leave the nervous system shocked. For 90% of the population: make the days before and after such intense sessions considerably less demanding. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t remain in motion. If you’re looking to workout on these days, keep things less taxing in general. Think a low heart rate cardio session lasting no more than an hour. For the weight lifters: target your small muscle groups (arms and calves). Weekly, this means most people can recover from 3-4 intense sessions, and 2-3 gentler workouts. Keep energy balanced – keep growing stronger.