The Workout Burnout

Overtraining is a real thing and you might not even realize you're burning out.  For me, I was exercising 6 days a week plus one personal trainer session.  I was doing circuit training group classes, athletic yoga, Hatha yoga, spin class, boxing, pilates and hiking on the weekends with my kids.  (Whew!)  I justified it because I had a stressful job and exercising had been a great relief, until it wasn't.  

I started getting sick with a cold, every month or two.  I also felt constantly physically depleted.  I felt tired, mentally distracted and just exhausted.  My logic was to work out more because exercise usually gave me energy.  I even started breaking out in sudden adult acne on my face.  I was eating more because I worked out so much but I was craving sugar and carbs.  

Finally, my body decided to force me to take a break.  

On a two-week road trip, which I started out with a cold, ended up with me getting pneumonia and a torn muscle in my rib cage from frequent coughing.  It took two months to recover.  During those two months, I exercised intermittently and felt extremely guilty for not doing my usual routine.  I lost my motivation to exercise and going to work out was like going to a dreaded dentist appointment.

In reflection, there was an aspect of exercise addiction in addition to overtraining. According to sports psychologist, Ian Cockerel at the University of Birmingham, England, “Healthy exercisers organize their exercise around their lives, whereas dependents organize their lives [around] their exercise.”  Apparently, exercise addiction may affect as many as 10% of bodybuilders and runners, but accurate data may not be available since this is not a condition most people will see their doctor about.  In fact, in our appearance centric culture (and especially if you live in the L.A. area), this would be seen as a “really motivated” person. 

Dr. Attila Szabo, an expert in exercise addiction and Professor Mark Griffiths, an expert in addictive behavior came up with the Exercise Addiction Inventory to determine the level of addiction.  If you want to quiz yourself, scroll to the bottom.

Being addicted to exercise can lead to overtraining but you don’t need to be an addict to feel the effects of overtraining either.  Overtraining occurs when your body does not get the proper rest or recovery from exercise.  Intense and lengthy bouts of exercise combined with inadequate rest and diet can raise the cortisol in your body to unhealthy levels.  Cortisol is a catabolic hormone that is necessary for our survival.  It is what wakes us out of our sleep.  It is the “fight or flight” hormone.  It was extremely handy when we humans fought and competed against wild animals for food and shelter but now it can“stress” us out.  Our cortisol level gets overactive when our boss yells at us, when that project deadline is due or when our body undergoes physical exertion, like exercising.  

Excessive exercise combined with our daily stresses takes a toll on our body.  Here are some signs of high cortisol:

  • Backaches

  • Restlessness during sleep

  • Food cravings such as for sweets

  • Gastrointestinal issues

  • Anxiety and depression

  • Exhaustion even after sleeping

  • Prone to colds and illnesses

You may want to check with your doctor if you have been experiencing these symptoms. If you suspect you may be experiencing overtraining, you might want to try:

  1. Take a break! Give it a week or even a month. Trust me.  You’re not going to turn into a blob of useless flesh.  Your muscles retain memory and taking this break may make their muscular hearts grow fonder.

  2. Change it up.  Do a completely different routine and different exercises. This doesn’t mean that if you have been running 3 miles a day, you should switch it up to doing the elliptical for 3 hours. If you have been doing solid resistance training, try yoga or pilates, or both.  Stretching those tired and contracted muscles will feel good in the short term and improve your performance later on.  If you are inside the gym a lot, try exercising outside like walking.  There are plenty of MeetUp groups nearby to show you some trails.

  3. Take it down a notch, or three.  If you’re a consummate runner, walk instead.  If you and your dumbbells were inseparable before, try using resistance bands.

It might seem unconscionable to take a break (which would’ve been greeted by a sharp gasp by my old self), but listening to your body will improve your performance.  Your body is the only one you’ve got and when it shouts and screams at you by constant illness, it’s time to stop and reassess.  

Exercise Addiction Inventory Quiz

Score yourself based on the following points:

1- Strongly Disagree  

2- Disagree

3- Uncertain

4- Agree

5- Strongly Agree

  1. Exercise is the most important thing in my life.

  2. Conflicts have arisen between me and my partner about the amount of exercise I do.

  3. I use exercise as a way of changing my mood (e.g. to get a buzz/to escape).

  4. Over time I have increased the amount of exercise I do in a day.

  5. If I have to miss an exercise session I feel moody and irritable.

  6. If I cut down the amount of exercise I do and then start again, I always end up exercising as often as I did before.


24 or more points: most likely at risk

13 to 24 points: potential risk

0 to 12 points: very unlikely



Jenny Tam