It’s no news flash that consistent physical activity leads to shifts in healthy lifestyle choices, which lead to an improvement in overall health, including mental health.
Being physically active and health-conscious has been proven to be incredibly effective for mental health issues: depression, anxiety, and PTSD to name only a few.
My clients can attest to exercise and physical activity acting as an effective anti-depressant.
Conforming with the structure of a regimented workout plan and diet has been a successful tactic in reducing inflammation and promoting changes in the way their body and brain function – this has prevented them experiencing any symptom relapse over time.
What I’ve noticed over the last 5 years – especially since I’ve drastically increased the intensity and frequency of my workouts – is that like anything, too much of something can become a bad thing.
I always reaffirm to my clients, family, and friends that you need to be cautious when adopting a new workout routine and lifestyle, because physical activity is relatively stressful on your body. This is because physical activity causes our adrenal glands begin to secrete moderate levels of cortisol, and overtime, excessive physical exertion forces these glands to become hyperactive, resulting in an over-trained state.
When overtraining and adrenal fatigue take full effect, it causes your adrenal glands to secrete increased levels of cortisol, which in turn puts your body in a state of distress and eventually leads the development of physical and mental health issues.
While cortisol can be beneficial in low doses, there is a tipping point. When our body has higher levels of cortisol, it has many negative side effects:
- it weakens your immune systems
- it puts you at increased risk of depression and mental illness
- it lowers your life expectancy
- it interferes with learning and memory
- it lowers bone density, putting you at risk for osteopenia or osteoporosis
- it increases your risk of weight gain
- it affects your blood pressure and cholesterol levels
- it puts you at greater risk of heart disease and cancer
I tested a theory in early 2018 that set me back almost a month – I had just come off 112 days of straight physical activity with no rest, meaning there wasn’t a single day that I wasn’t inactive, whether it was a full workout at the gym or a slower workout such as yoga.
The level of adrenal fatigue I was dealing with started to affect my mental health as well as my physical health: I wasn’t sleeping, which made me 100% more irritable, I was moody, I was depressed, had little-to-no energy, I was constantly in pain, and I noticed that my hormones were out of balance.
The most prominent side-effect after having been through this much physical stress was the hormonal decline. Your body will enter into a state of catabolism (also known as ‘survival state’), where your body begins to break down muscle tissue as a mechanism for survival; this is because muscle mass is much more calorically dense. This process happens so that you can begin to store fat, to aid in energy supply.
In a survival state, you will experience a testosterone or estrogen-progesterone drop, which compounds the effects of high cortisol levels. This leads to issues that include:
- nutrient intake and retention
- your ability to perform physically and mentally
- bone loss
- ability to lose or maintain weight
- sexual dysfunction
- amenorrhea, which can lead to infertility
The long and the short of it is that you should avoid the “no days off” mentality at all costs. You should never be following a no-days-off regimen for longer than two weeks. You can tear every muscle group all you want but, if your nutrition isn’t on point and you aren’t resting properly, you will experience diminishing returns.
There is a rule of thumb with regards to physical health, muscle growth & repair and weight management, and that’s to find the balance where you are doing 85% of the work through monitoring diet and nutrition, with the other 15% made up in the gym.
It’s a myth that you have to put your body through trauma in order to lose weight, be mentally and physically fit/strong, or be aesthetically fit. Instead, find yourself a healthy balance that allows you to eat what you want, still enjoy the body that you want, but never compromise your mental and physical health.
Wes Van Hart is a personal trainer, nutritionist (and far more), located in Toronto. Wes is an advocate for constantly improving both physical and mental health, and as such, he is dedicated to advancing his knowledge base, certifications and ability to help his clients, no matter how that looks.
Wes was the very first FitIn affiliate, and is a regular contributor to the FitIn blog.