Exercise is good for your heart and self-confidence but too much of a good thing could actually be unhealthy.

Extreme exercise programs are all the rage—heavy weightlifting, intense cardio workouts, aggressive cycling. They’re fun to watch and participate in, but do you know the hidden dangers of working out at such high intensity?

Healthy habit or obsessive behavior?

Exercise becomes unhealthy if your habits become excessive or obsessive—and yes, you risk developing an exercise addiction.

Extreme exercise classes attract people who may encourage each other to lift more, run faster and cycle harder. Friendly competition is typically a good thing, but this can become a problem when you push yourself beyond your body’s signals to stop.

Keep exercise in balance with the rest of your life—it shouldn’t replace family time, intimate relationships, and work or leisure activities. If you find yourself repeatedly turning down opportunities to hang out with family and friends to exercise instead, you may be crossing the line from healthy to obsessive.

Rest time is non-negotiable

Don’t ignore cues from your body to slow down or stop. Exercising despite pain and fatigue increases your risk for injuries. Allow your muscles to recover from the physical demands of an intense workout. Refusing your body’s need for rest can actually decrease your overall physical performance and have long-term consequences and risks for injury.

Where’d ya go, Flo?

Excessive exercising can throw your periods out of whack, especially if you’re not eating well. Below normal levels of body fat affects your hormone production and can cause consecutive missed periods, which is called amenorrhea. This could lead to temporary (and possibly permanent) issues with fertility. If you miss 3 or more periods in a row, ask your nurse or midwife about the cause and how to proceed.

Effects on bone health

Estrogen is crucial for healthy bones, and excessive exercising can decrease estrogen production, putting your bones at risk for losing density and getting weak. This increases your risks of serious fractures, and decreases your endurance and overall strength. If you’re older, bone density loss may be permanent and you may be at risk for osteoporosis.

Keep your kidneys in check

Perhaps the most serious risk of excessive exercise is exertional rhabdomyolysis which occurs when muscle tissue breaks down and releases fiber into your blood. Your kidneys can suffer damage as they try to filter the fibers out. Symptoms can mimic normal muscle aches, however, the pain from rhabdomyolysis intensifies with time and you can also feel week, stiff, have tender muscles and dark or cola-colored urine. This is a serious condition that requires urgent medical treatment to prevent kidney failure.

Prevent rhabdomyolysis by gradually increasing physical activity, especially if you’re new to intense exercise. Hydrate with plenty of fluids and avoid activities that overwork a particular muscle group.

Prioritize your health

Exercise is important for your overall health. Take caution with very vigorous or intense exercise—especially when you’re just getting started.

Get ready; get sweaty!

“No pain, no gain” is an outdated cliché:

  • Know how your current health affects your ability to exercise
  • Ramp up into exercising by starting out no more than 3 to 4 times a week
  • Try starting with 30 minutes a session and increasing from there
  • Start with low-impact, low-intensity activities and gradually increase your intensity
  • Don’t exercise solely as a means to losing weight
  • Set attainable and reasonable goals

Listen to your body: not being able to catch your breath, pain, and dizziness or fatigue aren’t normal

Learn how to safely exercise during pregnancy.



Rita Nutt, DNP, RN, is an assistant professor of nursing at Salisbury University in Salisbury, MD.

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