Healthy Exercise

Is the fitness you are performing healthy and right for you?

As we all know, the age of social media has given us the amazing ability to instantly share new and amazing ideas as well as spread misinformation leading to mass confusion. Whether purposefully or through a dilution of information, it is hard to wade through the vast ocean of information coming at us. This couldn’t be more evident than in the world of fitness. There have been fitness “fads” long before the rise of the internet however they now come in shinier packaging and we are bombarded by them daily. Beautiful social media models showing us how to “transform” your body. Countless gyms offering up a multitude of new and interesting workout options to quench the thirst of our ever-evolving attention deficit disorder.

A Renaissance in Exercise

As a health and fitness professional, I am truly excited about this renaissance of fitness and exercise. However, we have to ask the question, is this type of fitness healthy?

How do we determine what is good for us, and what is just hype? What are our goals? Most of us are not pro athletes so should we train like them?

I am a physical therapist who has been treating patients for 20 years. There have been a lot of repeat customers due to the repetitive stress put on their bodies as a result of poor exercise programming. I have also fallen prey to poor training protocols. Most of the time, this equates to repetitive stress injuries to connective tissues, or irritation to joints, stress fractures, spinal pain, plantar fasciitis, etc. In some cases, the nervous system can become so worn down that one becomes more susceptible to getting sick. But wait, I thought exercise was supposed to make us healthy? Done slowly and steadily, yes. However, too much exercise stress performed at a level higher than what our bodies are capable of recovering actually can weaken our immune system.


What the research is telling us

Lucky for us, there is a tremendous amount of peer-reviewed research out there which shows how we react to the stresses of exercise.

Studies by Brooks et al., 1990; Niels et al., 2003 showed “Unlike continuous training, high-intensity interval exercise (HITT training) results in a sharp elevation in the various stress-response hormones…Blood concentrations of epinephrine, norepinephrine can be more than 15 fold and cortisol and glucagon more than fourfold greater than resting levels and may remain elevated for several hours.” This stress response is good in a fight or flight scenario however, “Chronic elevations of these hormones can have a suppressive effect on appetite, sleep patterns, and immune function.” (MacDougall & Sale, 2014)

Are there other options?

“Anaerobic training (think powerlifting)…produces many of the same hormones associated with psychological stress. As a result, it contributes to the effects of other stressors in one’s life. Aerobic exercise (steady-state cardio) on the other hand increases hormones associated with the recovery state. Thus, aerobic general endurance activities oppose and reduce the effects of stress, so adding them to your training can increase the amount of anaerobic training your body can healthily accommodate.” (Goddard & Neumann, 1993)

“High adaptation cost is experienced especially by specialist athletes and people who perform hard physical labor” (Volkov, 2000). “A very high level of adaptation to one factor may harm other factors, apparently due to concentration of the adaptive resources in one direction. A common example is a depressed immune system in athletes in top shape; synthesis of immune proteins is depressed” (Yakovlev, 1986).

“The cost of adaptation to physical loads and its negative cross effects are possible but not unavoidable. The most rational path to their prevention is sensible load selection, the choice of the appropriate ontogenesis stage, and also the use of so-called combined adaptation when the organism simultaneously adapts to several factors. (Meerson & Pshennikova, 1988)


What does this all mean?

Essentially, there are different types of stress. Stresses that break us down and stresses that build us up. The stress that builds us up is called hormetic stress. This is a stress that challenges our bodies to build up a resistance to it and fortify and strengthen against further stress. However, if this stress becomes greater than what our bodies can repair and fortify, we get to break down and it is no longer hormetic but damaging. Within the exercise, we see these “bad stress” scenarios within quite a few scenarios. A few could be: inadequate sleep + overly intense exercise regularly = poor recovery and break down. Increased psychological stress + overly intense exercise = poor recovery and breakdown. Entering into a new workout plan at an intensity level that is too high = breakdown and poor recovery.

Any combination of adding stressors without adequate stress elevating scenarios performed regularly can lead to break down rather than building up.


Modern HITT

Modern HITT style training is an exercise modality that I pick on as it has significant overtraining consequences. Repetitive stress to soft tissues and joints increased stress hormone release, ammonia build-up, lactic acid build-up, etc. There is a huge stress on the nervous system. Now, you will see great “gains” within the first several weeks, however, these gains are not sustainable. Now, this is not to say that you should never perform HITT training. It has its place. Sometimes it is good to challenge your mental strength and how your body responds to a challenging workout, it just should not be performed as the “meat and potatoes” of your workout.

Moreover, it should be performed now and again or if you are several weeks away from competition, just not all the time. As well, some early positive research performed on HITT training looked at protocols involving 30-sec all-out effort followed by 3 min of light effort for 5 cycles. Quite a bit different than what we see in some popular exercise classes that implement HITT style training.

The majority of us should be exercising in a moderate intensity in a variety of ways, as well as a variety of planes of motion, (a plane of motion will be the topic of another blog to come). Physical health essentially resides on a bell curve with no to low activity leading to poor physical health and too intense of prolonged activity also leading to physical break down and poor health consequences. It is the people that perform a variety of light to moderate physical activity with the occasional high level of activity that fare the best in terms of overall health and physical longevity. Right in the middle of that bell curve.

Learn more about how to pick the right exercise for you here


Physical Therapist at Freedom Physical Therapy Services
Spencer is a manually based physical therapist who employs a variety of techniques including joint and soft tissue mobilization, Active Release and Muscle Energy Technique, and trigger point release. He is skilled in functionally based corrective exercises, as taught through Functional Movement Systems.