Lockdown has meant more of us are exercising than ever. We’re running, doing HIIT videos on YouTube, following Instagram Lives from our favourite PTs and studios.
At a time when there’s little routine, exercise provides a slither of structure. Perhaps you get up and run every morning before having breakfast, or joining a live class is the way you unwind and draw the line between the workday and downtime. If you’ve been furloughed or are generally feel restless with all the time spent indoors, you might be working out every day.
After all, we’re still only supposed to be heading outside for essential shopping, work or exercise so it makes sense to go for a jog if you want a daily breather.
But exercising every day really isn’t that good for you.
Rest days are important. In normal life, most people aren’t smashing HIIT classes at the gym seven days a week. For those of us who like to work out as part of our weekly schedule, we may go to the gym during the week and have the weekend off. If weekdays are busy, perhaps the weekends are our time to run, spin, Zumba.
But lockdown isn’t normal life.
‘I associate my one dose of leaving the house with a run,’ multiple marathon runner Megan tells Metro.co.uk.
‘Previous routine rest days were always the same and non-negotiable but now I’ll run five days straight without realising it and my legs are like “really? Again?”. I have to remind myself that walking is OK.’
She also says that she’s also conflicted about upping the mileage. There’s never been a better time to head out and run long but clocking up more miles means taking more rest days to recover.
And then of course, there’s the comparison trap.
‘I’m feeling very guilty when I don’t exercise every day as everyone else seems to be,’ says Toni.
‘I’m still fitting in rest days when DOMs set in or if I hit certain targets but I’ve definitely noticed that it’s more difficult to relax if I haven’t exercised that day.’
Having rest days is as important to performance as the actual workouts. Rest allows your body to repair all the torn muscle fibres created while you’re lifting or running, so not only does working out every day stop you from reaping the benefit of all your hard work, it also puts you at risk of injury.
Metro.co.uk’s own Rose Stokes says that she’s been ‘exercising every day and has just injured (herself) in the process’.
How to factor in rest days
A good general rule of thumb is to give yourself two rest days a week. If you’ve not got a routine in place, how about trying to follow something like this:
Day 1: Cardio (run/cycle/home workout)
Day 2: Strength (body weight/dumbbells/kettlebells/power yoga)
Day 3: Rest (60 mins yin/restorative yoga)
Day 4: Cardio
Day 5: Strength
Day 6: Cardio
Day 7: Rest (60 mins walk)
It’s not surprising. Running every day (for example) is going to significantly increase your risk of things like tendinosis or tendonitis and once you’ve got that, it can impact on your running for months to come. The more tired you get, the lazier you become with form and that can mean getting injured in whatever activity you’re doing – whether it’s renegade rows or long runs.
‘I’ve definitely been exercising every day and have noticed my performance in workouts is really suffering because my muscles are tired,’ says Eleanor.
‘I need it to get through the day but I keep telling myself that I’ll take a rest day tomorrow…but it’s not happened yet.’
Clearly, this is madness. 52 days of exercising straight is something very few of us would ever contemplate usually and it seems especially crazy when we all know that it’s not good for us.
But exercise can be addictive and when we’re zapped of endorphins, as most of us are at the moment, it’s understandable why we push ourselves to work up a sweat even when our bodies are screaming out for some R&R.
Then there’s the impact overexercising can have on your nervous system. You start to produce lots of cortisol (stress) and that circulates around the body causing inflammation, sleep issues, digestive problems. It can also, ironically, disrupt how your body metabolises fat. In women with PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome), for example, overexercising can actually lead to weight gain – despite burning an excessive number of calories every day.
‘Cortisol in excessive amounts has the ability to disturb our thyroid and metabolism, delay ovulation (resulting in late or missing periods) and even raise blood sugar levels promoting weight gain,’ says Kay Ali, functional medicine practitioner and hormone specialist.
If you’re smashing out daily HIIT sessions or long runs, you could be adding to an already stressed-out system. That then exacerbates symptoms – putting us at greater risk of things like type 2 diabetes and fertility trouble.
Symptoms of overexercising
Keep excessively exercising and you’ll start to experience some rather unpleasant side effects, including:
- Poor performance during exercise
- Feeling exhausted
- Low self-esteem and moon
- Poor sleep quality
- Sore muscles and limbs
- Suffering repetative injuries
- Getting more colds
It’s also possible to become addicted to exercise. It’s tricky to come to terms with the fact that a habit which is fundamentally healthy can become a problem but plenty of people do get addicted to working out.
Look out for the following signs and if you recognise them as your own behaviour, you might want to talk to someone before it gets out of hand:
- Feeling guilty or anxious if you don’t exercise
- Exercising even if you’re injured or feeling ill
- Exercise is no longer fun
- You stop having periods
- You prioritise exercise over other things like work or social occassions
Stress is such an important factor when it comes to health and fitness. Whether it’s physical or mental, stress disrupts every day balance and can trigger all kinds of issues.
‘The imbalance of stress on the body deregulates our natural hormones by both destroying the functionality of the gut and disrupting sleep cycles,’ Laurence Fountain, founder of Salus London previously told Metro.co.uk.
‘The final result? Poor metabolic output, decreased energy, increased food cravings, and rapid decrease of one’s mood – even depression.’
When our bodies are stressed, they stop absorbing all the nutrients available from food, while at the same time becoming inflamed. That leaves us without the raw material we need to build the hormones and neurotransmitters necessary to burn fat, build muscle and retain happiness. The more tired we get, the lower our self-esteem becomes and the more we look for escapism (perhaps in a bottle of wine or in a Deliveroo order).
There’s nothing wrong with treating yourself to whatever makes you happy but it’s important to avoid a kind of work-reward relationship whereby you flog yourself to deserve something you like. That way lies disordered behaviour.
Celebrity PT Alice Liveing agrees with Metro.co.uk that the lockdown exercising situation is a tricky one to navigate.
‘It’s a difficult mindset. People have a perceived sense of moving less so they’re over-compensating with exercise,’ she says.
‘Unfortunately, this has led to many people under-recovering and associating guilt with taking rest days despite how valuable and needed they still are!’
The key to feeling fitter is to work out moderately, take rest days and to really start honing in on what the body wants and needs. Are you eating enough whole foods? Are you stretching daily? Are you relying on processed, pre-packaged foods that might not be doing you much nutritional good?
Remember that working out and being active aren’t synonymous. Recovery can look different to different people. Some of us will feel better and move easier by committing to walk 10,000 steps or spending an hour doing restorative yoga on rest days. For others, a day glued to the sofa is more nourishing for body and soul than anything else. There’s no hard and fast rule beyond the point that you really can’t keep pushing yourself to perform medium-high intensity activity every day.
The best way to spend the rest of lockdown is to learn what genuinely makes you feel good. If you’re honest with yourself, running 10K every day or doing daily HIIT won’t feel great and apart from anything else, it’s totally unnecessary – whatever those fitness influencers on IG might lead you to believe.
If you need it, here’s your permission to just relax.
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