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Overexertion

Dr. Nadheer K M (AIIMS)MBBS

January 12, 2021

January 12, 2021

Overexertion
Overexertion

Getting enough physical exercise every day is crucial for your fitness and health. But while most people would know this, many aren’t aware that the saying “too much of a good thing is bad” applies to exercise too. You may be motivated to workout too much, jog for too long or do one too many crunches or squats - but instead of benefitting you, they’re more likely to do harm.

A study published in JAMA in 2018 suggests that both overexertion and disuse of vital organs represent extremes of undesirable behaviours. This means that not exercising and too much exercise are equally unhealthy for your health. Overexerting yourself during any exercise is taxing on your muscles, circulatory system and, therefore, your entire body. When you overexert yourself, the risk of injuries and serious health issues also increases. 

(Read more: Workout injuries)

It’s important to note that overexertion is not only the result of overexercising but also of other intensive activities. You could be a housewife and still suffer from overexertion if you do too much heavy lifting and overwork yourself around the house. Similarly, studies suggest that home health care workers also suffer from overexertion injuries especially while lifting and moving patients who have debilitating conditions or are too aged. Professions that include a lot of manual labour also lead to overexertion and related injuries, some of which can lead to impaired movement and ability to work for the rest of your life.

(Read more: Household chores as a means of exercise)

While overexertion can be dangerous and pose health risks no matter what your age or profession, the risks are increased manifold under certain circumstances. For example, if you’re a heart patient or have risk factors for heart diseases then studies indicate that overexertion - especially chronic overexertion - can lead to cardiovascular events like stroke, heart attack and even heart failure. Again, if you’re above 50 years of age then your likelihood of having comorbidities is high and so is your risk of negative health effects if you overexert yourself.

Therefore, it’s very important to recognise the signs of overexertion and ensure that you know your own limits while engaging in any physical activity - exercise or otherwise - to prevent overexertion. Here’s everything you need to know about overexertion, including its signs, effects and prevention tips.

What is overexertion?

In the simplest of terms, overexertion means pushing yourself harder than your mental and physical capabilities allow. Every individual has a different threshold for overexertion depending on their age, family and personal medical history, environmental factors and the specific task that’s leading to exertion. So, people who overexert themselves during exercise have very different causes, symptoms and treatment than those who overexert themselves at the workplace or while doing chores at home. 

These factors also affect when you become overexerted. For example, someone with high endurance and stamina is likely to reach the point of overexertion much later than someone who is just starting out at the gym. Similarly, if you have an undetected underlying health issue like hypertension or heart disease, you’re likely to cross the threshold into overexertion much sooner. What’s more, overexerting when you have underlying conditions can be dangerous to the point of being life-threatening. Even without any underlying conditions or health problems, overexertion can lead to injuries, sprains, fractures and a number of other issues.

Signs and symptoms of overexertion

Harvard Health Publishing explains that knowing the right intensity and duration of physical activity is very important. For example, when it comes to healthy exercise, the best goal to have is to get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every week. Moderate intensity refers to exercises that will likely make you breathe a little harder, your heart beat faster and the muscles feel a little burn at the peak of the exercise, but you’ll still be able to hold a conversation. This threshold is also something you should take into account while engaging in other forms of physical activity.

The following are some signs that are likely to show up if you go beyond this threshold and overexert yourself.

Shortness of breath

Overexertion leads to your body requiring more oxygen than the lung capacity allows, which can make breathing difficult. As your breathing becomes more difficult, it can cause shortness of breath. Shortness of breath during exercise can also indicate that you have undetected high blood pressure, lung weakness or heart problems. If you start feeling this sign then gradually slow down and rest up until you catch your breath. In case you want to resume the physical activity, do so at a slower pace.

Pain

A slight burn in your muscles is normal and expected when you engage in any form of physical activity. In fact, a slight burn is a sign that you are engaging your muscles and they are getting the exercise they need. But if what you’re experiencing is beyond the pain of that slight burn and instead causes pain that is more intense, muscle stiffness, spasms or cramps then it’s a sure-shot sign that you’re overexerting yourself. Leaving this unchecked can lead to serious muscle injuries and joint injuries like torn ligaments and joint instability. Stop, get some rest and reduce the intensity of the activity. If you experience pain or muscle cramps while working out at a gym, then get the advice of a trained professional and adjust your workout accordingly. 

(Read more: Muscle strain)

Dizziness

When you overexert yourself, your body dehydrates faster and weakens too. This happens especially if you forget to take enough breaks during your workout or activity and forget to rehydrate yourself properly. Dehydration and excessive glucose burning during overexertion can cause your blood pressure levels to drop. Studies suggest that this drop in blood pressure usually occurs around 30 minutes after you stop the activity or exercise and is likely to cause lightheadedness or dizziness. Often, it can also lead to a fainting spell. So, it’s best to keep yourself properly hydrated and avoid overexertion while engaging in any activity.

(Read more: Low blood pressure)

Fatigue 

While exercise releases endorphins and that’s likely to make you feel happier and more energetic, overexertion has the opposite effect. Overexertion tires out the entire body, leaving it weak and in need of rest. In case this much-needed rest is not provided - which happens in chronic overexertion - then you could experience physical fatigue with symptoms like tiredness, lethargy and soreness. Overexertion can also cause mental fatigue, which presents through signs like brain fog, confusion, difficulty in concentrating and an irritable mood or mood swings. Getting proper rest and sleep can help counter this effect of overexertion.

Causes of overexertion

Overexertion is caused by engaging in activities repetitively, improperly, suddenly or for a prolonged period of time without rest or breaks. The following are some of the chief causes of overexertion.

  • Improper technique: Using the wrong form or technique to do an exercise or physical activity is the simplest way to overexert yourself. This type of overexertion can occur not just in the gym or sports field but also at home or at the workplace. For example, if you’re lifting a box at work or home and do so with your back instead of the legs then your body can get injured.
  • Excessive exercise: Prolonged or excessive exercise done without any pause or breaks for rest can lead to overexertion too. This could happen if you’re overtraining for a sporting event, if you’re working out too much to lose weight or simply spring cleaning your entire home in a day without any rest at all. Similarly, prolonged engagement in a cognitive activity can lead to mental overexertion.
  • Repetitive actions: If you use a particular part of your body repetitively in the same motion or action then it can lead to overexertion of the associated muscles, bones and joints. For example, typing or writing too much can overexert your arms, hands and fingers and lead to stiffness, pain and even carpal tunnel syndrome. Playing instruments or cooking (which involves stirring and mixing with the hands frequently) can also overexert your arms.

Treatment of overexertion: How to stop it

As mentioned before, overexertion can be caused by a number of factors and may present itself through multiple signs and symptoms. The treatment of overexertion largely depends on these underlying causes and symptoms. The following are some common results of overexertion and how to treat them.

Chronic pain

Whether you’re an athlete or somebody who has a physically demanding job (including domestic work), chronic overexertion is likely to lead to chronic pain. While pain in the muscles is most commonly associated with chronic overexertion, the pain can also present in areas like the lower back. If the overexertion is not dealt with, this pain can become much worse and debilitating, potentially impairing movement and function in the future. 

Consult a doctor if your pain is too acute. It’s likely the doctor will recommend rest, proper nutrition and a gradual transition to normal activities by starting out slow with only a few light activities. If your pain is too much to bear then you might also need over-the-counter medications and physiotherapy. 

(Read more: Home remedies for body pain)

Injuries

Another common effect of overexertion is an increased risk of injuries. A study published in Sports Health in 2020 indicates, for example, that overexertion leads to soft tissue damage and related injuries. Muscle tears, rotator cuff tears and joint instability can also be caused due to overexertion. This apart, your risk of falls and related injuries also increase, especially if you also have symptoms like dizziness and fainting spells. 

These injuries are best treated by a professional, so consult a doctor as soon as possible. Joint and muscle injuries are usually treated by resting the concerned areas, wearing a brace to reaffirm its stability and doing light stretches guided by a trained physiotherapist. Applying hot or cold compresses and taking over-the-counter medications can help you deal with the pain of these injuries.

(Read more: Workout injuries)

Cardiovascular events

Any kind of intense physical activity can increase your heart rate, which also means that your blood is pumping hard and circulating quickly throughout the body. If you’re healthy and aren’t overexerting yourself then this increased heart rate is a good thing. However, if you have heart disease - even an undetected one - or suffer from high blood pressure, high cholesterol or blood circulation issues then overexertion can prove to be quite dangerous and cause strokes, heart attacks and heart failure

If you have a diagnosed heart condition and are on beta-blockers then the effects of overexertion can be masked, which can also increase your risk of negative outcomes. Consulting a doctor and adhering to their guidance and prescriptions is vital in these cases. You might be given medications, recommended changes in your lifestyle and referred to a physiotherapist to restart physical activity as per your individual needs and pace of recovery.

Low immune responses

A study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine in 1998 indicates that both acute and chronic overexertion can affect your immune system. The study explains that even a single bout of exhausting exercise can cause subclinical muscle damage and trigger inflammatory immune responses in your body. The researchers show that the immune functions that change in your body due to overexertion are similar to those found in sepsis patients. 

What’s worse, chronic overexertion can cripple your immune responses and make you more susceptible to illnesses, especially infections and wounds or injuries that take too long to heal. The best way to deal with this decline in immunity is take ample rest and give your immune system a good boost. You could do this by consulting a doctor and a nutritionist who can recommend a nutrient-dense balanced diet and any dietary supplements you may need.

(Read more: Weak immune system)

How long does it take to recover

Recovering from overexertion will depend largely on your individual causes, symptoms, underlying conditions and results of overexertion; the individual recovery time is also likely to vary accordingly. If you have pain or an injury then it’s likely to take a couple of weeks of complete rest to make a full recovery. Recovery from more complicated effects of overexertion may take longer.

For example, if you have chronic pain or heart disease then apart from resting up for a few weeks, you may also require long-term changes to manage your chronic condition better. Because these effects are chronic and may reappear every time you overexert a bit beyond your threshold, recovering from these can take years if complete recovery is at all possible. If it’s not possible to recover completely then managing your condition and refraining from overexertion for the rest of your life is the best that can be done.

How to avoid overexertion

There are some pretty easy ways to prevent overexertion and the best one is to know your own limits and stick to them. If you’re prone to overexerting during workouts in an effort to lose weight or for stamina, then you should know that increasing your endurance and strength must be done gradually, not suddenly at one go. Here are some more tips you can use to prevent overexertion:

  • Always warm-up and cool down before and after your exercise routine. If your job involves intense physical activity then stretch before, during and after your activities to minimise injuries and keep your muscles pliable.
  • Make sure you take plenty of breaks during your workout regime and enough rest after exercising to allow your muscles to recover. The same applies to intense household or professional work.
  • Hydrate properly throughout the day and appropriately during breaks in physical activity. Don’t skip meals and make sure you have plenty of nutrient-dense vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds. Include plenty of lean proteins like chicken, fish, soy, etc in your diet.
  • Always ask the trainer or teacher about the proper technique, duration and intensity of each exercise to prevent overexertion. If your job requires lifting objects frequently then remember to lift with your legs instead of your back to prevent injuries.
  • Include a variety of exercises in your workout routine to prevent overexerting on one exercise and muscle group.
  • Slow down whatever you’re doing if you feel any weakness or see any signs of overexertion and take a break. 
  • If you frequently experience signs of overexertion then consult a doctor without any delay. Get a full-body check-up done and especially analyse your risks of heart disease, hypertension and stroke.

(Read more: How to increase running stamina)

Takeaways

Overexertion can happen if you engage in any physical activity at a high intensity, especially an intensity higher than your body is used to. It is not only taxing on your body but also your mind. Chronic overexertion can, therefore, not only affect your muscles and cause symptoms like fatigue and pain but also modulate your immune responses and psychological functions. Preventing overexertion is therefore very important. 

If you want to take up a new physical activity which could potentially lead to overexertion, it’s best to consult a doctor and get a thorough check-up done first. This is because having undetected high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome and heart disease can lead to severe complications if you overexert yourself. Take all the possible preventive steps against overexertion that you can. Getting proper nutrition and drinking plenty of water can also help you recover from the effects of overexertion.



References

  1. Harvard Health Publishing: Harvard Medical School [Internet]. Harvard University, Cambridge. Massachusetts. USA; Safe exercise: Know the warning signs of pushing too hard.
  2. Galinsky, T. et al. Overexertion injuries in home health care workers and the need for ergonomics. Home Health Care Serv Q . 2001;20(3):57-73. PMID: 12018686
  3. Ewart, CK. et al. Usefulness of self-efficacy in predicting overexertion during programmed exercise in coronary artery disease. Am J Cardiol . 1986 Mar 1;57(8):557-61. PMID: 3953439
  4. Shephard, RJ and Shek, PN. Acute and chronic over-exertion: do depressed immune responses provide useful markers?. Int J Sports Med . 1998 Apr;19(3):159-71. PMID: 9630020
  5. Li, Ryan T. et al. Does Overexertion Correlate With Increased Injury? The Relationship Between Player Workload and Soft Tissue Injury in Professional American Football Players Using Wearable Technology. Sports Health . Jan/Feb 2020;12(1):66-73. PMID: 31469616
  6. Haskell, WL. et al. Physical activity and exercise to achieve health-related physical fitness components.. Public Health Rep. 1985 Mar-Apr; 100(2): 202–212. PMID: 3920719
  7. Johns Hopkins Medicine [Internet]. The Johns Hopkins University, The Johns Hopkins Hospital, and Johns Hopkins Health System; 10 Tips for Preventing Sports Injuries in Kids and Teens
  8. Harvard Health Publishing: Harvard Medical School [Internet]. Harvard University, Cambridge. Massachusetts. USA; Fitness over 50: Rebooting your workout.

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