With the continual push to be more active coupled with a legitimate fear of sitting too much (but my computer needs me!), it’s no surprise that many wellness devotees are hitting the gym/mat/trail harder than ever. Whether we’re after that eyebrow-raising transformation photo or looking to experience the multitude of benefits that accompany exercise (like delaying the aging process), as a whole we’re attending more high-intensity fitness classes than ever before, pushing ourselves to new limits.
While reaching new levels of fitness can certainly feel empowering—not to mention the rush of endorphins from that last sweat sesh!—we have to be careful about not overdoing it. According to Charles Passler (nutritionist to Bella Hadid, Adriana Lima, and Sara Sampaio), pushing yourself too hard via high-intensity training can actually set you back in your fitness goals, especially when it comes to weight loss. “The anatomy and physiology of humans is not designed for long-duration, frequent, high-intensity exercise,” Passler says.
One of the main drawbacks of training too hard is the increase in cortisol that accompanies pushing your body to its limits too frequently: “If an individual spends the majority of time during a workout in the anaerobic-to-high-intensity heart rate, there will be little to no fat lost and an increase in cortisol, our stress hormone,” Passler explains. “Cortisol is a major antagonist for weight loss.”
And then there’s the risk of injury: “Endurance athletes are prone to cardiovascular and joint difficulties,” Passler says. When we do high-intensity exercise with high-impact qualities, like running, the risk of injury further increases. As any one who’s suffered shin splints or a torn hamstring can attest—an exercise-related injury can set you back weeks. (Plus, it hurts!)
Passler recommends opting for a more balanced workout regimen that includes plenty of low-impact exercises, including yoga, walking, rowing, Pilates, and swimming. There’s an entire body of research exploring the many benefits of Low-Intensity Steady State/Sustained State (LISS) exercise. Defined as exercising at 50 to 60 percent of your maximum heart rate for a period of about 45 minutes or more, LISS trains your body to be better at metabolizing fat as energy during future workouts. (The better your oxygen intake, the more equipped your body is to efficiently burn fat.) These workouts tend to limit impact and stress on the body while allowing the heart rate to recover along the way, thereby avoiding an excessive spike in cortisol.
This doesn’t mean that we have to avoid high-intensity workouts all together, however. Mindfully incorporating them into your exercise regimen can yield wonderful results. “When you exercise at low intensities, you burn very few calories after the exercise is completed,” Passler says. Things are a little different with a HIIT workout, however: “When you exercise intensely, there is a metabolic disturbance that burns calories after the workout is completed. This is known as the after-burn effect.”
Moreover, HIIT is credited with promising anti-aging results. According to the Mayo Clinic, high-intensity workouts can improve muscle cell function in both young and older practitioners: “Interval training boosted the ability of the mitochondria within cells to generate energy by 69 percent in older volunteers, and by 49 percent in the younger group.” In plain terms, by improving muscular health at the cellular level, HIIT may help muscles behave as if they were younger.
Fortunately, we don’t have to do HIIT daily to see results—nor does that interval training need to be high-impact. Low-impact HIIT could include water running, cycling, or elliptical training. Passler recommends doing something high-intensity one or two times a week and filling your remaining days with walking, yoga, and the like.
Speaking from personal experience, I noticed a huge improvement in my recovery time and muscle tone when I transitioned from running daily to running a few times a week and enjoying yoga, pilates, and barre the rest of the week. Indeed, cross training is usually pretty common advice—now we know why!
Have you ever felt that you were training too hard? How did you change up your workout routine?
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Photo: Bella Hadid via Instagram, Crystal Chin