Exercise: How much is too much?

Kerry Senchyna is a provincially  registered kinesiologist. - The News/Files
Kerry Senchyna is a provincially registered kinesiologist.
— image credit: The News/Files

There is a recent trend in the fitness industry toward group workout programs and classes that are extremely challenging and also hard on the body.

The workouts themselves are very difficult and there are sometimes competitions that are involved that can produce injuries.

Recently, a young man who was competing in a weight lifting portion of a boot camp competition lost control of the heavy bar while holding it over his head; it fell on him and severed his spinal cord, making him paralyzed from the waist down.

There is a popular outdoor, military-style endurance competition that involves running through fields, mountainous slopes and mud, through electrical wires (designed to shock you), and into containers of freezing water, all to test how tough competitors are. These traumatic injuries, the seemingly extreme nature of the programs and the sometimes bizarre exercises involved prompts the question, from many observers: “How much is too much?”

As in any exercise program, there is inherent risk and reward. In order to improve your physical condition, you must do a little more than what your body is used to, and this is what stimulates your body to build up its fitness level. Sometimes you can do too much and cause an injury. What then are the rewards and risks of these extreme exercise programs?

The rewards of high intensity training are that, if you stay injury-free, you will generally bring your level of strength and fitness to a higher level than by most conventional programs. The capacity to burn fat and lose weight has been shown to be greater with high intensity exercise compared to moderate exercise for a given time commitment. That doesn’t mean that you can’t achieve weight loss or improve your fitness with moderate intensity exercise – people do it all the time.

Many extreme fitness programs use a ‘functional fitness’ philosophy’ that involves using your own body weight for resistance, or lifting or flipping over everyday objects like large truck tires. Functional training can be beneficial, but is not in and of itself, the single best way to train in every circumstance. Another reward is the thrill and confidence some people get when they push themselves in extreme conditions and environments.

The risks of such programs and competitions are that they are marketed to a wide population, regardless of fitness level. People who are less fit when they start are at higher risk for severe injury or for overuse injuries.

Some of these programs have insufficient rest periods between sets, which may readily lead to high levels of fatigue, elevated oxidative stress (the failure of the body to get rid of waste products that cause cell damage), and increased risk for muscle, tendon and joint damage and overuse injuries.

Training intensity is not specifically monitored for each individual, since in a competitive environment people are encouraged to keep up with the rest of the group.

Premature fatigue leads to impaired exercise technique and this is a very high risk factor for injury. Most of the safe, high-intensity interval programs have minimum rest periods built into the structure of the program that have been shown to be effective in laboratory testing.

And finally, there are obvious risks for people with pre-existing injuries or health conditions that would be adversely affected by high-intensity training.

The more one pushes to extremes, the greater the need for individualized monitoring, because the margin for error in overtraining is much less.

If you are involved in one of these programs or are looking into it, just be aware of the risks involved and ask yourself what your options are.

Kerry Senchyna is a provincially registered kinesiologist. He works at Westcoast Kinesiology.

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