Over-Exercising: How Much Exercise Is Too Much? (And What to Know About Exercising with Chronic Pain)

Learn about the effects of getting too much exercise, how to tell if you’re over-exercising, and how to find the right amount of movement for you.

Published Date: May 19, 2023

Hinge Health physical therapists see a huge range of members with different health needs and goals. Some people are rehabbing acute injuries and looking to stay as active as possible with their usual hobbies and workouts as they recover. Others are people who have been more inactive because of persistent pain and are now looking to use exercise therapy to heal their pain and get more active. Many of these folks have concerns about ramping up their activity after being less active for a while: Is it possible to over-exercise? What if exercising too much makes my pain worse?

"When you have pain or an injury, moving can feel risky. And I think it’s important to acknowledge and validate those feelings. Movement does have some risks, but not moving is much, much riskier"
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health

“Our bodies adapt very positively to movement. And although pain and injuries do happen at times, don't let the thought of exercising too much hold you back, because exercising too little is a much bigger problem for both overall health and persistent pain," says Dr. Peterson.

Here, we’ll talk about how you can use your movement sweet spot — the right type and amount of activity for you — to make sure you're not over-exercising.

Our Hinge Health Experts

Christine Dang, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Dang is a Hinge Health physical therapist and board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist with a special interest in helping mountain athletes.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Peterson is a Hinge Health physical therapist who focuses on developing clinical exercise therapy programs and member education.

Is There Such Thing as Too Much Exercise? 

National guidelines say that all adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (like brisk walking) or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise (like running or doing a workout class) each week, as well as muscle-strengthening activities at least twice a week. But they don’t say how much, if any, is too much. 

“There’s no specific number — it really depends on the individual and their overall exercise history and fitness level,” says Christine Dang, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. If you’ve been a distance runner since college, for example, then your body may be able to handle running 30 or more miles a week without any problem. If so, that’s great — don’t hold back on doing a type or amount of exercise that you feel confident in. 

But if you’re just starting to exercise and you ramp it up too quickly, you may overdo it and experience muscle and joint pain that exceeds a reasonable level for you, stresses Dr. Dang. While aches and pains are generally not a sign of injury, this can be really frustrating and make it challenging to establish a movement or exercise habit. 

Finding the Right Amount of Rest 

While it’s true that you need to push your body to get stronger and faster, your body also needs some rest from certain high-intensity activities to perform at an optimal level and allow you to feel your best. 

This is important: Rest doesn’t mean doing nothing. Rather, it means scaling back on the intensity of your exercise, or incorporating different types of movement into your routine to give specific muscles and joints a break. “This is important because it allows your body to recover and get ready to perform at an optimal level during your next workout,” explains Dr. Dang.

This looks different for everybody and there’s no right or wrong way to go about it, as long as you remember to respect your movement sweet spot. If you are training for a 5k race, this might mean incorporating strength-training exercises and biking a few days a week in place of running. If persistent pain has made exercise challenging for you but you’re ready to try to increase your activity level, this might mean walking for 10 minutes three days per week and doing some stretching or strengthening exercises the other days. 

Bottom line: Even in the presence of joint pain or muscle aches, you are safe to move. You may just need to scale back and incorporate more gentle and restorative movements to ensure you work within your movement sweet spot. 

How Much Is Too Much? Signs You May Need to Scale Back

The best way to tell if you are over-exercising is to listen to your body, says Dr. Dang. Here are a few signs to look for that may indicate you’ve exceeded your movement sweet spot and can scale back temporarily: 

  • Pain becomes unacceptable or increases for longer than 24 hours. Some pain is fine, and if pain returns to your baseline level within 24 hours, it’s a good sign that your body is able to handle that level of exercise. If not, you may need to temporarily scale back on your exercise intensity or frequency until your pain returns to your baseline level. 

  • Decreased fitness performance. If your fitness level seems to be going down, not up, you may be pushing your body too hard. “You may find that you’re not moving as quickly as you used to, or even that you have a slower reaction time,” says Dr. Dang.

  • Workouts are harder. You may find that your heart rate gets elevated more than it used to, or that you simply don’t have the energy reserves to power you through your normal physical activities.

  • Fatigue. You don’t just feel tired — you feel like you have “heavy legs” as you go through your day-to-day routine. While it’s okay for a hard workout to leave you dragging for a day or so, this shouldn’t be something you experience day after day or regularly. 

  • Moodiness. Over-exercising can ramp up your body’s production of stress hormones, says Dr. Dang. As a result, you may find that you fly off the handle more often, have a hard time concentrating, or experience signs of depression and other mood changes.

  • Overuse injuries. Without proper rest, your body doesn’t have time to recover in between workouts which can contribute to injuries.

How to Avoid Overdoing It 

Increasing your activity level is not bad or dangerous. Even if you have to nudge into your pain a bit, gradually ramping up your exercise can be a really healthy way to take care of your mind and body. The key is to do it gradually. 

“Where people get into trouble is if they go from being more sedentary to suddenly working out, say, two or more hours a day,” says Dr. Dang. “We see that a lot in January when folks make New Year’s resolutions and ramp up their exercise regimen really quickly, which can cause their bodies to revolt.”

If you don’t feel well, are under a lot of stress, or find it hard to get through your workout, it’s okay to cut back, advises Dr. Dang. That’s a great opportunity to focus on walking, exercise therapy, and other gentle activities that keep you moving while giving your body a chance to heal. The following tips can help, too: 

  • Drink enough water before, during, and after exercise. The American Council on Exercise recommends drinking 17-20 ounces of water two hours before the start of exercise and another seven to 10 ounces every 10 to 20 minutes during exercise. If it’s hard for you to drink water during a workout, try to put extra focus on hydration before and after your workout. 

  • Strive to get about eight hours of sleep each night. It’s true that many adults struggle to meet the recommended eight hours of sleep each night. And while you may be someone who is happy to deprioritize sleep, it’s worth remembering that sleep is actually what allows your body to rest and rebuild, so it’s an important aspect of managing pain and helping your body adapt to higher levels of activity. 

  • Avoid extreme weather. Exercising in extreme heat or cold can be hard on your body. Try to exercise outside when the weather is more mild and, if possible, indoors on days when the weather is more extreme. 

  • Fuel your body with nutritious food. It’s important to keep your nutrient levels up when exercising regularly to help your body heal and recover. Fuel your body with whole foods including fruits, veggies, nuts and legumes, proteins (e.g., poultry and fish), and healthy fats like avocados and olive oil. Even if you don’t feel hungrier, try to prioritize a few extra calories from whole foods (and crowd out less nutrient-dense options like processed carbohydrates, if necessary). 

  • Include targeted exercises. Targeted movements, exercises, and stretches that work to build the strength and flexibility of joints that may be prone to pain can keep your body resilient to gradual increases in your exercise. Whether you are or have experienced knee pain, back pain, hip pain, or something else, therapeutic exercises are an important part of a balanced movement routine. A physical therapist can help you create a plan that’s tailored to your needs and goals. You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.

PT Tip: Mix It Up With Cross Training 

If you normally run, substitute a session or two every week with an activity like swimming or cycling. “It allows you to work muscles all over your body and not use the same ones over and over, which reduces risk of injury,” says Dr. Dang. “It also mixes up your fitness routine enough so that you won’t get bored or burned out.” 

Learn More About Hinge Health for Pain Relief

We’ve got a full team of clinical experts to help you move past your pain. Click here to see if you’re eligible to join our free digital clinic for back and joint pain.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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