Too much of a good thing?

More is not betterTo avoid overdoing an exercise regimen, balance the challenges

More is not betterTo avoid overdoing an exercise regimen, balance the challenges

October 14, 2002|by KEVIN CLAPP

A few years ago, Daniel J. Sullivan decided to get back into running shape.

Having sprinted in high school and college, the osteopathic doctor returned to the track. For a while, the plan worked; his body responded to the training regimen.

Then creaky knees derailed the runner.

Now, Dr. Sullivan is not a man left on the curb when the fitness bus zoomed by. He works out regularly, cross trains and is awfully fit.

It's just that running no longer works for the associate director of rehabilitation services with Washington County Health System.

"If I went out to run five miles, I could run five miles," Sullivan says. "But for the next two weeks I couldn't walk."


From time to time, there can be too much of a good thing. And exercise is Exhibit A.

In moderation, aerobic activity and weight training puts the brakes on a one-way trip to obesity. The natural high associated with successfully completing a 15-mile bike ride or six-mile run can't be beat. Regular exercise can minimize the risk of chronic disease.

But where a healthy fitness regimen goes wrong is when mileage piles up without enough time for aching muscle groups to take a much needed breather.

Then overuse injuries - stress fractures, muscle strains - crop up, often ending all activity until health returns.

"It's amazing what the bodies go through," says Doug Lentz, director of fitness and wellness at RESULTS Therapy and Fitness in Chambersburg, Pa. "It's one of the hardest things for people who haven't exercised, not to do too much."

Lentz and Brian White, health fitness instructor at City Hospital's Wellness Center in Martinsburg, W.Va., each have experiences that echo Sullivan's.

An avid bike rider, Lentz knows to pull back if his body is stiff. Training for marathons, White admits to having stress fractures creep up that, undetected, could have stopped him in his tracks.

As it was, he listened to his body and was able to treat the injury before it got out of hand. Often, this is the line exercisers must straddle.

Problem is, the question "How much is too much?" is one no two experts answer identically. Only in the last year or two, Sullivan says, has there been a dialogue that exercise isn't without a downside.

"Everyone has a window of activity that's good for them and it varies from person to person," he says. "Everybody has that window and everybody's goal should be to open that window wide enough without doing harm."

All three preach cross-training. Not only does it break up the monotony of the same activity day after day, week after week, but mixing up activity also creates a balanced workout.

Say someone runs every day. They are working a specific group of muscles but ignoring others. White learned this lesson the hard way when starting to train for a triathlon. Running had not prepared him for the rigors of bike riding.

"Your heart is more than likely able to take it. It's the rest of your body you have to worry about," White says of relying on a single activity. "Your body, when you exercise, it gets stronger in what you do. But if you do a number of activities you'll get stronger in all those activities."

So mix in biking, exercise machines, swimming and weight training to craft a well-balanced exercise diet.

Lentz goes a step farther, fashioning programs that cut exercise into small bursts such as three 10-minute stints on a treadmill instead of 30 minutes straight. He says this approach gives joints a little break, ultimately preventing overuse injuries.

"I really believe in breaking things up before you have a problem. Break it up, even as much as you like it," he says. "(People) may think more is better but that's not always the case. You can do too much. There's no question even the elite athletes can run themselves into the ground."

Tall and muscular, Sullivan is an imposing physical presence. He may not run, but he doesn't let that slow him down. His goal is to maintain his physique; there's no need to hop the macho train to be the biggest and best there is.

If, 20 years from now, he can be exercising the way he does now, he figures he'll be one fit and trim 65-year-old.

"Everyone should exercise. It should be part of the daily routine. It's the most potent medicine we have," he says.

"Yes, there's a downside. But if you're smart you don't have to experience much of the downside."

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