ARTICLES         BOOKS         VIDEOS         LINKS         EDU PAGE         EVENTS         CONTACT

You Can Over-Eat But Can You Over-Exercise?
By Don Bennett, DAS

We're all aware that it is entirely possible to eat more than you should. Many people do it every day, and there are various reasons for it. But is it possible to exercise more than you should?

There's no argument that the human body has a fat requirement, and if you under-do it, your health will suffer, and if you over-do it, the same thing will happen, but for different reasons.

So for optimal health, we're looking for the sweet spot when it comes to fat intake. And the human body also has a water requirement, and if you under- or over-do it, your health will suffer for it. Same goes for sunshine.

But the human body also has a physical activity requirement, and it's not like sleep where you can get too little but can't get too much. Physical activity is in the same category as fat, water, and sunshine, but it's not as self-evident on the "too much" end of the spectrum.

Think of it like this: let's say you had that type of metabolism that, no matter how much you ate, you would never be overweight, even if you didn't exercise. So you could eat twice the amount of calories worth of food that your body required for fuel, and you might figure that it was no harm no foul. But the extra unnecessary digestion will result in less "awake time" (because you need more sleep to replenish the nerve energy used to fuel that digestion), and if done to excess, will result in a lowered longevity... if caloric restriction studies have shown us anything, it is that. And the same holds true for over-doing exercise. More than you need is not in the best interest of the body.

In our natural environment, we wouldn't have to devote any brain power to thinking about how much fat we need or how to avoid getting too much and which types of fat are there and what's the Omega 3 to 6 ratio of this fruit or that fruit. Our natural day-to-day lifestyle in our natural environment would provide for the right amounts of fat, water, and sunshine… and physical activity. We wouldn't have to go out of our way to "work out". We'd get an appropriate amount of exercise without having to exercise.

But in the unnatural environments that most people live in today, we're not assured of automatically getting appropriate amounts of physical activity. Our modern culture even goes so far as to worship "labor-saving devices". Why walk up a flight of stairs when we can simply stand perfectly still and let the elevator takes us there. People look at me as if I had three heads when I use the stairs instead of a perfectly good escalator that runs alongside those stairs.

So when we come to realize that our bodies require physical activity to be in optimal shape, and that our present lifestyle isn't providing for that need, we've got to do something. And whenever we have to make conscious decisions about some aspect of our lives, a course of action that results in a positive outcome is not guaranteed. And the issue of exercise is no exception.

When it comes to exercise, my personal observation has been that people live in the extremes, either doing way too little or way too much. It's fairly easy to spot the people who are under-doing it if you're on the lookout for them, but what does over-doing look like? When you search for people at the other end of the spectrum, you can't necessarily judge someone's physical health by how they look. I've seen many people who appear "fit" yet they're a few months away from requiring orthoscopic surgery to repair a damaged body part. So here we have to turn to our design and think about what would be our natural way of staying in shape.

Let's take the common activity of running. And if you're an avid runner, please don't shoot the messenger; if you truly care about your health, this should include the health of your joints, your heart, and the ligaments that hold your organs in place. If we take into account the tons of damaged cartilage that's been removed from people since the running craze began in the mid '60s, and we consider that prior to running becoming a popular activity, orthopedic surgeons were few and far between and now they're all over the place, we can surmise that running, as it is commonly practiced, is not in the body's best interest, all thing considered. And yet, you'll find advice like this in a running magazine article titled, Am I Running too Much? "If you are running well, don’t feel chronically fatigued, and your times are improving, you are definitely not running too much." Since "running too much" can be causing low level damage over time – damage that can be cumulative – this is bad advice.

So an "all things considered" perspective is the best way to look at any aspect of our lives… on balance, taking all things into consideration. Yes, there are benefits to running, but can these benefits be obtained from other activities that have none of running's detrimental properties? The answer is yes. Same goes for garlic: Can we get the benefits of garlic from something else that has none of garlic's downsides? Also yes. But if we aren't as aware of running's downsides as we are its positive attributes, how can we make decisions that are in our body's best interest. And then if our decision-making abilities are influenced by a "runner's high," we could very well believe we are doing right by our body when we're really not.

And more running than our body was designed to do doesn't just have the potential to negatively impact the skeletal structure and certain ligaments. If, because of over-doing it, your antioxidant threshold is exceeded or micronutrients are consumed at a level that cannot easily be replaced, and on top of this if you don't get adequate amounts of restorative sleep and/or you exercise hard again too soon, both handicapping "recovery", less than optimal health will (not may) be the result.

And what about body building? Is it possible to develop musculature more than what's optimal for the body? If you've ever seen photos of people who've taken this to the extreme, you'll realize that it is entirely possible. Muscles are like a car engine. Why are engines designed to be able to move the car at 120 miles per hour if you're never going to go that fast? This is because if engines were designed only to go as fast as you're ever likely to go, when you went that fast you'd be operating that engine at its maximum potential, and it wouldn't last as long as if you operated it at 60 percent of its maximum potential. Same goes for your muscles. They don't need as much "headroom" as a car engine, but they do have some. So developing your musculature to its peak operating efficiency as opposed to its maximum potential is much better for them, and for the body, and therefore for you. But this sound reasoning doesn't stop people from overdeveloping their musculature. The top photo is an obvious example of "too much", but the bottom photo is also more than we would be in our natural environment where we could only "work out" with our own body weight, yet this is seen by many as an example of the epitome of muscular development. But if it's taking muscles close to their max, it isn't... from the body's perspective. And if optimal health is your goal, your body's perspective should weigh heavily in your decision-making.

So how would you figure out what level you should develop your musculature to? You could start by asking how strong does your body need to be. Does it need to be strong enough to do "feats of strength" or win contests? Hardly. What would you be doing, activity-wise, if you were living in your biological "eco-niche", where you were designed to live. You'd be doing a lot of walking, some climbing, and an occasional sprint. You wouldn't need to be able to bench press or dead lift 200 pounds or run for miles.

So if you adopted a workout routine that got your walking, climbing, and sprinting musculature into great shape without over-developing them, this would constitute sensible physical activity.

If we want to take an observational approach to the issue, we simply have to look at little children. What do they naturally do for activity? They do run, but in short bursts, i.e. sprinting. They don't mind walking unless they're tired out by all the non-human food they're eating. And they love to climb! If you tried to get them to run for long distances or do a free-weight workout, it would be an exercise in frustration, for both you and the child. And this is because it's not natural for them. My favorite thing at the playground when I was a kid? It wasn't the swings or the seesaw, it was the monkey bars (jungle gym).

So just as we don't eat the most popular foods (for very good reasons), why shouldn't we take that approach to diet and apply it to exercise? Just as with diet, the most popular forms of physical activity are not necessarily the best ones for us, health-wise. Just as we can over-eat, we can over-exercise. And in the "not too little and not too much" department, just as we should have an appropriate level of fatness, we should also have an appropriate level of fitness.


Don Bennett is an insightful, appropriately fit fruitarian, author, and health creation counselor whose favorite exercise is climbing, and who does run... ten minutes per year, which is 15 seconds once a week doing a sprint, which is running as fast as you can for as long as you can, and this has my lower body in good enough shape to run miles of "distance running" which shows that most people are overdoing their distance running if they're doing it to be in shape.


See also:

Fact or Fiction? To keep fit, exercise 30 minutes a day, three to five times a week

Too Much Exercise Can Damage the Heart

Back to list of Articles