Can Too Much Exercise Lead to Weight Gain?

grayscale photo of woman holding her breast

By Holly L

August 17, 2021

For those of us looking to shed some lockdown pounds, we are repeatedly told to move more.


Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Exercise?


Believe it or not, while working out will help you burn more calories and tone up, there can be too much of a good thing when it comes to exercise.


Stress Causes Weight Gain


The stress hormone cortisol stimulates our appetite to overeat, but also stimulates the releases of insulin which is our fat storing hormone which leads to more fat being stored in the abdominal area.


But Exercise is Good for Stress?


Yes, that is true.  Physical activity can help lower your overall stress levels and improve your quality of life, both mentally and physically. Exercising regularly can have a positive effect on your mood by relieving the tension, anxiety, anger, and mild depression that often go together with stress. It can improve the quality of your sleep, which can be negatively impacted by stress, depression, and anxiety.


How Does Exercise Help with Stress?


Physical activity improves your body’s ability to use oxygen and improves blood flow. Both changes have a direct effect on your brain. Exercise also increases your brain’s production of endorphins. Endorphins are the “feel-good” neurotransmitters that are responsible for the sense of well-being and euphoria that many people experience after exercise.  Also, we know that exercise improves overall health, including gut health by promoting the growth of bacteria which produce the fatty acid butyrate. This helps to repair the lining of our gut and reduce inflammation.  Having a happy gut is essential to a happy mind as our gut bacteria produce about 95 percent of the body’s serotonin which is a key hormone in stabilizing our mood, feelings of well-being and happiness.


However, Too Much Exercise Can Cause Stress Too!


Every time we push our bodies hard; that could be on a run, a bike ride or lifting weights; we are putting our bodies under stress (there’s a reason we call it a “work-out”).  That delayed onset muscle soreness you get after a session is caused by tiny tears in the muscle fibres.  This isn’t a bad thing as the body repairs the muscles enabling them to grow bigger and stronger and all that repairing requires extra energy which therefore increases the number of calories we burn, referred to the “after-burn” effect of exercise.

If we don’t allow our bodies enough time to fully recover and repair before going again, we may push the body’s stress response too far, leading to a cascade of biochemical responses that can cause serious damage to our health in both the short and long term.


Overtraining has been shown to affect blood levels of important neurotransmitters such as glutamine, dopamine and 5-HTP, which can lead to feelings of depression and chronic fatigue. The stress caused by intense, excessive exercise can cause conditions such as hypothyroidism. This is known to cause depression, weight gain, and digestive disfunction along with a variety of other symptoms.


What Should I Do?


The most important thing is to listen to your body.  Clients struggling to find time to exercise often ask me if they should be getting up at 5am to exercise.  If that means they are not getting adequate sleep (7-8 hours minimum a night) my answer is always no.  Sleep quality is so important for health and therefore stress and weight management.


Adjust your programme based on how you feel


If you notice you are feeling particularly tired, be kind to yourself, ditch that HIIT class or the heavy weight session you had planned and instead take a yoga class or go for a walk.


Hormones and Exercise for Woman


woman doing yoga on rock platform next to body of waterCortisol levels are typically higher in women during the follicular phase of their menstrual cycle (first half of cycle before ovulation), excessive exercise at this time can exacerbate cortisol imbalances which then can interfere with progesterone and oestrogen balance.


Using an app to track your menstrual cycle and note how you are feeling can really help you to better understand your body and plan exercise accordingly.


Menopause and Exercise


Cortisol levels are often higher during the latter stages or perimenopause and adding to this stress will only make menopause symptoms worse.  Shorter high intensity session and less endurance training has been shown to be more beneficial along with resistance training to maintain muscle mass and keep bones strong.











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