Why Your Exercise Routine May Be Hurting Your Health

by Salvador Cefalu, M.S., L.Ac.

As you know, exercise is essential for a healthy life and especially a healthy heart and cardiovascular system. But improper exercise may actually cause health problems.

A condition known as Overtraining Syndrome, or Metabolic Overtraining Syndrome, is more common than you might think.

Overtraining, especially with endurance and anaerobic training such as weight training, accelerates aging as inflammation gets ramped up in the body.

When overtraining is combined with overworking and a lack of proper rest and recovery time, Overtraining Syndrome can impact a person on many levels ranging from becoming injury prone to metabolic disorders involving hormonal imbalances, immune system dysfunction, fatigue, mood disorders and neurological problems.

How to Know if You’re Overtraining

One biomarker that should be considered as a possible result of overtraining is elevated homocysteine. 

Homocysteine is an amino acid that is created by the body from the essential amino acid Methionine. It gets converted with the help of vitamin B6 into an important amino acid called Cysteine. Chronically elevated homocysteine levels are a potential indicator of cardiovascular disease development since homocysteine is an important biomarker for vascular inflammation.  Over time,  elevated levels of homocysteine can increase risk of heart attack, stroke and vascular dementia, the second most frequent cause of dementia in the elderly behind only Alzheimers. 

Stress and caffeine consumption will also increase homocysteine as the neurotransmitters related to stress, epinephrine and norepinephrine, become elevated.

Since the major focus should be to minimize inflammation, maintaining a healthy level of homocysteine is a KEY component for maintaining a healthy cardiovascular system. 

So how much exercise is really necessary to achieve optimal health?

According to Dr. Mercola in his article “Physical Inactivity Costs Global Economy $67 Billion Each Year,” he says "the greatest effect on longevity was found among those who engaged in 150 to 450 minutes of exercise per week, the bulk of which was moderate intensity activities such as walking. Including bouts of vigorous activity can give you an additional boost in longevity.” 

In fact, recent research has shown that just 5 minutes of high-intensity exercise is needed to have optimal health benefits. 

You may consider short periods of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) for your routine. With even just five minutes of high-intensity exercise, healthy nitric oxide (eNOS) is released to dilate blood vessels and increase blood perfusion throughout the body. Growth Hormone (GH) is elevated and BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic factor) is released in the brain’s Hippocampus. 

Increased BDFT helps improve stress management and memory while reducing mood swings and depression. Better stress management will prevent your body from overflowing with cortisol, which in excess can lead to weight gain and lowered immune function. 

In general, chronic, long-term stress takes its toll on your health and over-exercising when the body is already maxed out from a stressful day can be very damaging to your health.

So if your busting your behind for 40 minutes on the treadmill, keep in mind that less is more and short-term interval training is a much better option.

If you engage in endurance type aerobic exercise or engage in regular, intensive weight-lifting workouts, I suggest you have your homocysteine levels tested when you have your next blood test. Keep in mind, the standard medical belief is that homocysteine should be below 10.6 for cardio-vascular health. However, some of the leading physicians in the growing field of Functional Medicine recommend a level below 7 for optimal metabolic health overall.

Another important bio-marker to check in relation to inflammation is C-Reactive Protein (CRP). It is advised to keep your CRP level below 1.0 mg/L. Any measure above this point indicates a risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

In addition, check your vitamin B status (especially B6, B12 and Folic Acid) to ensure you are able to maintain healthy homocysteine levels because these vitamins are essential to support  liver detoxification.

Timing Your Exercise for Optimal Health

The final point about exercise relates to the timing of working out.

It's best to avoid excessive and vigorous exercise in the afternoon during the hottest time of the day. 

The early morning between 5am and 11am is the optimum time to work out and ramp up the body’s metabolism. Ideally, focus on the HIIT type workouts for no more than 20 minutes.

Remember, the peak Yang time is midday, so it’s best not to overstimulate the body during the heat of the day.

Midday exercise increases internal heat and burns out the body’s Qi leading to fatigue and exhaustion.

The Yin time occurs during the evening as the sun sets and peaks during the midnight hours, so it’s also best to avoid training hard late in the day.

Late evening exercise, especially exercise that causes a lot of sweating, depletes the body’s fluids and thus dries up the body’s cells and can lead to accelerated aging and the occurrence of wrinkles and sagging skin.

Proper training requires proper rest and recovery time so it's best to avoid daily exhaustive training. With your extra time, take regular 20-30 minute walks to keep your aerobic system active. In the late afternoon and evening try focusing on exercises that improve your flexibility such as stretching, gentle or Yin Yoga, Qi Gong and Tai Chi to keep your body cool and your mind calm and relaxed as you wind down and prepare for deep, restorative sleep. 

Salvador Cefalu, M.S., L.Ac. is the Founder and Co-Director of A Center for Natural Healing in Santa Clara, California, a wellness clinic that specializes in Classical Chinese Medicine & Japanese Meridian Therapy, a rare non-insertion form of Acupuncture. More information at www.acenterfornaturalhealing.com