Overtraining is probably not behind your weight loss plateau – here’s why

When it comes to improving our physical fitness, the time you do not spend on exercise (often known as “recovery”) is as important as the exercise and training you do.

Not only is recovery important for anyone who wants to build muscle mass, taking enough time to recover between workouts is also important to avoid “overtraining” – a form of extreme fatigue where recovery can take weeks to years to take place.

Overtraining occurs when there is an imbalance between the amount of exercise you do and the amount of recovery you have between sessions. It can cause a weakened immune system, altered hormone activity and persistent fatigue (often lasting more than four weeks). But some reports and comments online also suggest that overtraining may be a reason why some people struggle to lose weight – or maybe even get them to put on weight. This is unlikely to be the case – here’s why.

To lose weight, you need to create what is known as a “calorie deficit”. This basically just means that you burn more calories than you consume, and over a longer period of time.

There are two ways to achieve a calorie deficit – whether it’s changing your diet so you eat fewer calories than your body burns, or increasing the amount of exercise you do so you burn more calories than you do. consumes.

On this basis, it would seem realistic to expect that if someone overtrained, they would probably burn more calories than they consume – leading to weight loss. However, some people believe that because exercise stresses the body, overtraining will therefore cause prolonged stress to the body – and subsequently lead to weight gain. This counterintuitive compound usually involves a hormone called cortisol.

The hormone cortisol is usually released in response to stress – such as from mental stress due to work or school. Cortisol is also released when we carry out moderate or intense exercise stress. The body does this to help prepare for the stress it will experience – so it tells the body to release some energy to help complete the exercise we are doing.

Increases in cortisol levels from exercise-related stress are typically short-lived and usually return to normal within one hour of exercise. Therefore, anyone who frequently trains at a high level will repeatedly experience elevated cortisol levels due to exercise-related stress.

Stress and weight

Overexposure to cortisol leads to an increase in the activation of a specific enzyme called lipoprotein lipase, which is found in fat cells. This enzyme tells the cells to increase their storage of fats and explains why excessive stress can sometimes lead to an increase in fat in the abdomen, face and chest. Too high cortisol levels can also make it easier for adipose tissue to regenerate cortisol in the adipose tissue itself – further increasing the activity of lipoprotein lipase and subsequent fat storage.

There is some evidence that the group of glands that make cortisol (known as the HPA axis) is affected by overtraining. However, much of this research shows that the cortisol’s response to stress actually decreases during a period of overtraining.

Tired woman resting on an exercise bike after her workout.
Research shows that overtraining can actually reduce blood cortisol.
kryzhov / Shutterstock

Work from my own lab found that the cortisol response to a high-intensity 30-minute training stress test is lowered after a short period (11 days) of intensified training. This, along with results from other research, suggests that during periods of overtraining, cortisol levels in our blood may actually drop in response to a stressful event – such as exercise.

This can be a protective mechanism for the body when it is repeatedly exposed to increased cortisol levels. This means that a period of overtraining is unlikely to increase fat storage and weight gain.

Occurrence of overtraining

Even if you exercise regularly, it’s really hard to know what your risk may be of overtraining. We know that high-level athletes are more likely to suffer from overtraining due to their intense training requirements, with studies showing that between 30% and 60% of athletes experience overtraining. But research that specifically looks at how often the average person experiences overtraining is scarce.

So why might people experience a weight loss plateau even though they exercise often? While the hormone cortisol is associated with weight gain, it is unlikely that the average person who exercises a few times a week is going to stress their body enough to cause the kind of significant and sustained cortisol increase needed to do this.

The reason why people might experience a weight loss plateau – or even weight gain – despite going to the gym a few times a week or even daily may be due to a number of factors. Excessive stress in your day-to-day may be one of the reasons, along with poor diet, not having a calorie deficit or even overestimating the number of calories you burn in the gym.

If you have already managed to lose some weight, but find that your progress has stalled, it may be worth considering whether you now need fewer calories. Adding extra light activity every day – such as a walk at lunchtime – can also help you burn some extra calories without stressing your body.

While overtraining is unlikely to prevent the average person from losing weight, it is always important to plan rest days in your workout routine to avoid fatigue and allow your muscles to recover.

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