Runner laying down on track

Many people are under the impression that you just can’t get enough exercise. A healthy activity must be healthier if you get more of it – right? Well, not necessarily; it’s possible to get too much exercise.

Exercise isn’t natural

“Physical activity” is the term of art used in science for any movement of the body using skeletal muscles that leads to energy expenditure. Basically, almost anything other than sleeping or sitting in a chair involves physical activity, some of it strenuous – working a construction job, for instance – some of it much less strenuous – working an office job, or walking the dog.

Exercise isn’t synonymous with, but is a type of, physical activity. “Exercise is physical activity that is planned, structured, repetitive, and purposive in the sense that improvement or maintenance
of one or more components of physical fitness is an objective.”

Exercise is meant to improve physical fitness and health. To improve fitness, one must place a stress on the body, so that it responds to the stress by getting stronger and more resistant to injury, or by increasing cardiovascular capacity (VO2max) so that it can perform better the next time the stress is encountered.

Exercise is hormesis, or the process by which a low-dose stress or toxin improves health. But as with any stress, it can be overdone. Below is a chart for the incidence of atrial fibrillation in people who exercise (see previous link for details).

Large image of Figure 1.

Those who exercised at high volume (not intensity as I explain in the previous article) had a higher incidence than those who exercised at moderate volume. It’s clearly possible to exercise too much.

The Exerstat

Do non-human animals exercise? Some of them do seem to run around for no purpose other than the running, or perhaps enjoyment.

It’s possible that animals, including humans, have some kind of built-in need for exercise so that they can maintain their health. The cult of athletics goes back at least as far as ancient Greece, and in primitive societies, dancing and simulated fighting are common.

But, if there’s a built-in need for exercise, there’s also a built-in “exerstat” that tells an animal when to stop, when to rest. Animals rest when needed, and human hunter-gatherer societies are well-known for taking it easy when necessary.

We modern humans are capable of overriding our “exerstat”.

What happens when you override your exerstat? You feel rotten: tired, weak, and with a depressed mood.

Yet many people with these symptoms continue to exercise more than they should.

These people don’t understand that exercise is a stress, and requires proper rest and recovery.

In the video below, Doug McGuff, M.D. (“Body by Science“) discusses how his 3 times a week workout regimen made him feel like “crap”.  He advocates a once-weekly workout now.


Exercise forces adaptive changes on the body. Like a drug, exercise requires a minimal effective dose. Just as giving more of a drug doesn’t always mean better results, more exercise doesn’t necessarily improve health either.

The multi-billion dollar fitness industry wants you exercising constantly, since there’s more money in it for them.

The health-conscious man often looks at the average person, who exercises little if at all, and says to himself, “I’m not going to be like that.” But he then goes overboard and exercises too much, doesn’t feel well, and wonders why.

It took me years of trial and error to discover my optimal frequency of exercise, which is currently two 35-minute sessions a week of high-intensity lifting. Sometimes even that feels like a lot. Before I cut back, I often had the same experience as McGuff: I felt terrible and had days where I didn’t feel like I was capable of doing much of anything.

Conclusion: Rest

If you do any sort of exercise of a higher intensity than, say, walking, your body needs rest and recovery. If the exercise isn’t too intense, you might only need a day. But if you lift weights, you need more time for rest and recovery.

Realize that exercise is a stress and it isn’t necessarily the case that more is better.

Besides improving health, the purpose of exercise is to make you feel better, with higher energy and a better mood. If exercise isn’t doing that, your dose may be too high, and you should cut back.

PS: For the best exercise, see my book, Muscle Up.

PPS: Check out my Supplements Buying Guide for Men.

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  1. S.L. says:

    Good article.

  2. Rob says:

    A friend of mine (in his mid 50s) enjoyed endurance biking. The guy would be out there almost every day, biking up and down hills for miles on end (with a pained look on his face). He thought he was in great shape, as his resting pulse was something like 42. Then he developed atrial fibrillation, and eventually needed heart surgery. He has aged noticeably in the last few years, and is not able to do many of the things he used to do. I would put marathon runners into the same category. Humans are not designed to do the things they try to do (have you ever seen a healthy-looking marathon runner?). Lots of examples of marathon runners who died of heart attacks in their 40s.
    If you want to run, do it in sprints, with slow/moderate walking in between a few sprints. Then rest.

    • pzo says:

      Amen, Rob. While running huge distances has its historical place with persistence hunting, it sure isn’t something humans don’t do w/o a damned good, survival based reason.

      “Joy of Running,” (what? are you nuts? yes.) author Jim Fixx died of a massive heart attack at age 52………while running. Per this Wikipedia article, he had major health problems including a genetic predisposition to CVD. So, bottom line, all his running didn’t do one thing against his fate. He might have lived as long sitting in a chair drinking beer.

      In fact, we now know that steady state exercise like long distance running shortens life.

  3. Patrick says:

    This comes at the perfect time. I’m 57 years old and have been weight training 5 days a week and run/walk 30 minutes a day and hour on weekends. I have finally decided to cut back on my weight training to 3 days a week. I can tell you with certainty that I already feel better. I believe my cns could no longer take that amount of stress. My (cardio) which consists of sprint/Run for 1 minute followed by 4 minutes of walking is also a cut back from my 3 minutes Run and 2 minutes walk.

  4. Roland says:

    Wouldn’t it be more accurate to talk about the weekly amount (time) of intensity? I’ve got my iron at home and workout 4-5 days a week for about 10-20 min in the mornings. That’s two, maximum three exercises of true intensity. After such a short time I don’t feel hammered and can start the day energized.
    I am 54, fairly experienced in weight training and would not be able to lift for 30 minutes intensely. Guess we need a definite description of intensity here. For example: DB laterals cannot be done with true intensity because the weight is just too light. Intensity for me starts with my first rep after warm up and mobility work and ends after my last rep of my second or third exercise, before laterals or grip work or ab work. Rest times between stets 30-90 sec. (Legs need more) Whole workout of MOVEMENT is about 20-30 min.
    I understand the argument but it’s valid under the assumption that people have to commute to a gym, which most of us have to do.
    IMO my way of training is more productive than working out 1x or 2x/ week and spending the rest of the time sitting on my butt.

  5. bigmyc says:

    Yeah, this definitely applies to me. Heck, I guess it applies to everyone. Yet, I don’t get how people can swear that they hit the gym 5 times a week or exercise every other day, etc. I can only imagine that those people, while getting regular exercise, aren’t doing it “correctly” or to say, not intensely enough.

    • Drifter says:

      I’m one of those people and I’d say the biggest factors are 1) for the past 7 years or so I’ve avoided going past the point on any set where I really have to “grind” a rep out or let my form deteriorate, and 2) I’ve found through trial and error that I seem to do better with a bunch of focused workouts rather than two longer workouts.

  6. Matt says:

    I think age is a huge factor in overtraining. In my 20s I could easily eat truckloads of carbs and crank out 4-5 high volume sessions per week (not saying that was the most efficient way of training, just that my body could handle it). I’m 34 now and high carb, high volume, high frequency diet and training leave me feeling like a bloated, weak, brain-fogged zombie for days. I’ve switched to high intensity, low volume, low frequency training and a low carb diet now and feel worlds better while continuing to improve performance.

    On another note, after your and Joe Rogan’s interviews with Dr. Shawn Baker I tried the carnivore diet for a week and felt great, although I missed the variety low carb allows. Something to experiment with more in the future for sure.

  7. Tenet says:

    I know a woman in her early thirties who is a vegan and runs almost every day. She has a pancake ass and sagging face.

    By contrast, my girlfriend eats meat and does squats and lunges with my dumbbells and looks great.

    • American says:

      I see this a lot too. Good observation

    • Paloma says:

      I do agree with this. Veganism and slow pace long distance running are a very bad combination.
      I used to be one of those, and by my second pregnancy I was just devastated.
      I started eating meat and weightlifting and now I look (and feel, that is even more important) toned and full of energy. And I am not bigger.

  8. Allan Folz says:

    I have to say, of all the fabulous advice PD has shared over the years, this has been the most impactful to me. Realizing I could get most (and likely all) the benefits of strength training with just twice a week trips to the gym for 35-55 minutes at a visit was hugely psychologically freeing.

    If I can’t make it Monday, no biggie, I go on Tuesday. Ditto Thursday and Friday. Or Saturday. Or Sunday. I literally don’t care what days I go. Just that I get there twice a week most weeks; occasionally three if I’m feeling really into it, or one or zero if life intrudes.

    I go for the health benefits, not to win ribbons, and definitely not for money. What is most important is how do I feel. At twice a week I feel great, and am always feeling like I want to go back to the gym for more. I know I’d NOT feel the same way if I had to get up 1-2 hours early, 3 to 4 days a week to go to the gym.

    I see people lock-in to ridiculously rigid training schedules and I think they do it because they largely hate going and know if they don’t keep at it like a religious commitment, they’ll never go. As our President might say, Sad!

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