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Define "moderation." How much exercise is "too much"?
March 3, 2013 2:27 AM   Subscribe

My parents think I've been exercising too much. I think they are being well-meaning but a little out of touch. This is also forcing me to question prevailing notions about appropriate exercise. Help me process this.

So my parents expressed shock and concern when I casually mentioned that during my exercise routine at the gym today, I pedaled the stationary bike at a heart rate of 150 bpm for 12 minutes (that's 80% my max heart rate). Their main point, as I understand it, is that I shouldn't exercise so intensely or so frequently. They made several comments. "150 bmp is double your resting heart rate, which is obviously excessive!" "Marathons are known to cause heart damage and even fatalities!*." "2x a week at the gym should be enough for you." "It is better to stick with light exercise activities, like jogging or walking." I was taken aback by these nagging, "shoulding" comments. Being 1st-generation Asian immigrants, I can see how American-style fitness norms and standards are a very alien concept.

I know that I'm not doing anything out of the ordinary compared to other young adults. But their comments got me wondering about scientific evidence for the intrinsic safety of my favorite training activities, namely cardio, weightlifting, and high-intensity interval training. It seems entirely plausible that exercise, if done at a certain level, becomes detrimental to your long-term health. Clearly, my parents and I disagree on that threshold. What information is there that cuts to the heart of the issue?

*nytimes has been writing about new research showing less or moderate levels of exercise being, counterintuitively, more beneficial than previously thought.
posted by polymodus to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
When I first saw your question I wondered if it would be about someone who is really out-of-the-ordinary limits and was getting valid concern, but that doesn't seem to be you! I took two points out of the question:

1) Check out the CDC recommendations for How much physical activity do adults need? and their guidelines on target heart rate.
2) ...new research showing less or moderate levels...
Beware of news articles turning careful (or spurious) scientific research into digestible conclusions. I haven't followed this series of articles closely, but some other recent popular press explanations have been woefully oversimplified and sometimes inaccurate conclusions of the research. See, for example, how being slightly overweight makes you live longer.
posted by whatzit at 3:10 AM on March 3, 2013


While I've never seen any studies regarding too much strength training or HIIT, there is such a thing as too much endurance training. But we're talking marathon levels of training.
posted by Durin's Bane at 3:25 AM on March 3, 2013


This is a tough one because the topic is dominated by news articles quoting a press release touting preliminary data. But most doctors will be overjoyed to find out that their patients are getting 30 minutes of cardio a day (and if you say how your doctor is thrilled, your parents will probably accept this as evidence).

If this sort of exercise were bad for you, then we would know lots of people who were regular gym-goers who were developing health problems. Obviously we don't see that... No one even has anecdotal evidence of moderate exercise causing health problems. (I have heard of, but not met personally, chronic marathon runners who always seem to be sick and are nursing some kind of injury they're trying to recover from).

But I totally hear what you're saying. Back when I was in really peak physical condition, running 35-40 miles a week and lifting weights, my father described me as "cachectic". Families disconnected from the modern western tradition of physical fitness and competitive sports are going to find even moderate exercise routines hard to grasp.
posted by deanc at 4:45 AM on March 3, 2013


Why not go get a check-up and talk to a doctor, now and maybe again in 6 months?
posted by juliplease at 5:05 AM on March 3, 2013


If you're looking for evidence in the form of "of a doctor said it, then it must be ok", here is something.

Outside of extreme edge cases, you will not find a recommendation against exercise. The amount of exercise you would have to do to get to the point where it was "too much" takes more time than most people who work a full time job have available in their day.
posted by deanc at 5:24 AM on March 3, 2013


Your parents aren't completely off their rocker, but there's a big difference between marathon-level training and getting your heartrate up to 150 bpm for 12 minutes a few times a week.

This article in the WSJ might be of interest to you as well. For example, "In a study involving 52,600 people followed for three decades, the runners in the group had a 19% lower death rate than nonrunners. . . . But among the running cohort, those who ran a lot—more than 20 to 25 miles a week—lost that mortality advantage"--i.e., more than 3-4 hours a week of intense aerobic exercise.

The other thing to consider is to be honest with yourself over the long run (no pun intended) about how your exercise routine is affecting your health. For example, this meta-analysis of 17 studies of injury rates among runners (ranging from recreational runners to competitive athletes) found injury rates ranging from 20% to 93%. I think exercisers fall into two different categories in this regard: people who are looking to maintain some basic level of cardio fitness and strength, and people who are continually driven toward achieving higher and higher exercise/athletic goals. I think sometimes people in the latter category tend to downplay the negative impacts of their exercise routines on their health, especially in terms repeated low-grade joint/soft tissue injuries.
posted by drlith at 5:29 AM on March 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


Tell your parents that I, a middleaged woman, routinely worked out in spin class with that being my target heart rate for the entire class and as far as I know I have not dropped dead. That, and the instructor was a former paramedic who was monitoring the entire class's heart rate to include mine.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:47 AM on March 3, 2013


PS I used to do up to seven spin classes a week, to include occasionally two in one day. Again, I didn't drop dead.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:47 AM on March 3, 2013


One more thing-after that, I would refrain from discussing working out with your parents if I were you. This is my strategy for dealing with my own elderly parents who don't always understand things I am doing-why trouble them with details that they will only give me crap for later?
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:49 AM on March 3, 2013 [10 favorites]


IIRC excessive exercise is commonly a factor in eating disorders, though not everyone who has an eating disorder over-exercises or vice versa. Is your diet restrictive or otherwise something that would cause your parents concern in combination with your exercise level?
posted by nicebookrack at 6:32 AM on March 3, 2013


I have heard of, but not met personally, chronic marathon runners who always seem to be sick and are nursing some kind of injury they're trying to recover from

I have met people who fall into that category, and I have wondered a lot about how "healthy" it is to physically work your body to the point that you are injuring yourself. I mean, exercise is good, but surely the point is to be in better physical shape?

That said, unless you are facing health problems due to your spin habit, I don't think you fall into the "working out to the point of serious injury" category.
posted by Sara C. at 6:39 AM on March 3, 2013


I casually mentioned that during my exercise routine at the gym today, I pedaled the stationary bike at a heart rate of 150 bpm for 12 minutes

Oh really, you casually mentioned that? Come on, dude. You might as well say "My GIRLFRIEND and I went to the GYM together." I think you just learned the hard way that you shouldn't try to brag about your exercise routine to your parents. There is really absolutely no need to ever tell someone about your workout in that level of detail unless they're explicitly your workout buddy or something.

People who don't exercise regularly have a hard time wrapping their minds around normal amounts of exercise. I think you know you're fine. Your parents are probably stuck in their ways and mindsets at this point, so just try to rein in your instinct to tell them how hardcore you are and you'll all get along in peace.
posted by telegraph at 7:02 AM on March 3, 2013 [7 favorites]


My parents are first gen Asian immigrants too -- Chinese, if that matters, and they've got the same view. I'd put it down to a cultural anxiety/fear of being more than mildly sweaty/associating it with bitter labor of the low-class manual kind.

Just tell 'em you exercise and don't give them the scary details.
posted by joyceanmachine at 7:13 AM on March 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


I am not saying this about your parents, but that sounds like the advice from an out of shape person trying to make some justification on why they "can't" exercise.

(The other one I hear from people in deep debt when I pay in cash; "I get cash back" or "it keeps my credit score good" as they use their almost maxed-out credit cards)

I would ignore the advice from people that aren't making the positive changes you are making. If they keep giving advice anyway, ignore the people.
posted by bensherman at 7:34 AM on March 3, 2013


rarely is heart health a problem for cardio exercises. You'll get tired first. Physical injury, generally from repetitive stress on the body, is really what makes marathoners people in poor health. Cardio wise they are in incredible shape.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:55 AM on March 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm an overweight, 45-year-old man, and on my last bike ride I cycled for an hour and a half with an average heart rate of 153, which is 80% of my maximum heart rate (and 2.7 times my resting heart rate). The highest my heart got on that ride was 174, or 90% of max. Unless you have a problem with your heart, you have nothing to worry about. Heck, I have a friend from college who has to take digitalis for a heart murmur, and he routinely does long bike rides with a high heart rate.

If your parents react with horror to 12 minutes at 150 bpm, though, they'll probably just think I'm crazy. My advice would be to talk to your doctor and get his or her blessing. And then don't talk too much to your parents about your exercising.

As Ironmouth and others have said, the risk from excessive exercise isn't to your cardiovascular system, but rather, to muscles and joints from repetitive stress or accidents. I used to be a runner, but my knees started to bother me. I switched to cycling, which is a low-impact sport, for that reason.
posted by brianogilvie at 8:45 AM on March 3, 2013


Are you injuring yourself, or exercising through injury?

Are you sacrificing work, hobbies, and relationships in order to continue exercising?

Do you have a medical condition for which the type of exercising in contraindicated?

Then no, you are not exercising too much. Your body was meant to move. Your parents' worries indicate they should probably be exercising more, as it means they don't have enough experience with it to realize their concerns are silly.
posted by schroedinger at 8:56 AM on March 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


My parents are first gen Asian immigrants too -- Chinese, if that matters, and they've got the same view. I'd put it down to a cultural anxiety/fear of being more than mildly sweaty/associating it with bitter labor of the low-class manual kind.

See also the role heat and dampness plays in Chinese medicine.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:34 AM on March 3, 2013


The definition of "moderation" depends greatly on the priorities, values and perspective of the actor (or the assessor). A range of "normal" and "healthy" can span a pretty wide continuum, and depend on a lot of individual factors, including things like your motivation - which is hard (if not impossible) to assess from the outside.

People could say I have "disordered" eating because I voluntarily choose a pretty restrictive diet for myself (not restrictive in portion quantity, but restrictive in the types of food I eat). It's something I do freely based upon what my personal values are (it makes me feel better in my daily life; I would rather feel good, have lots of energy and less anxiety, than be able to eat anything I want at any time. I understand that other's experiences and importance of these factors may differ). My closer friends and family all take this in stride, but more casual acquaintances & coworkers have implied that there is something wrong with ME; these tend to be also the sorts of people who know little to nothing about nutrition, and use "you have to indulge sometimes!!" as a euphemism for "indulging" in soda and potato chips at every single meal. It irritates them somehow that I, too, am not drinking a Thirstbuster of Dr. Pepper with my lunch, and they take my private eating choices as a critique on their own and begin to attack or mock me as preemptive defense. It is rare, but it has happened.

In your case, I think an above poster was right-on when they pointed out that you are pretty much bragging about your exercise routine to people who don't exercise; that is an utterly sure-fire way to put anyone on the defensive, cultural history aside even. It really is unnecessary. I don't go up to my friends whose diets aren't as strict as mine and say "hey, ya know what I had for lunch today? I had a huge organic baby-spinach salad with tomato and cucumber and a glass of green superfood and a whole box of rice crackers with some goat cheese." I would be just ASKING for trouble at that point. Why would I do that? Why would YOU do that, if you already know that their standards of normalcy and moderation are different from yours?

Long story short: You know that your exercise habits are within the cultural norm, they are not causing you health problems by any scientific or practical measure anyone can see, and they fit with your personal values and goals. You also know that your parents (A) don't or won't believe the prevailing science of how much exercise is harmful, but more importantly, (B) they don't see physical fitness as a significant value worth sacrificing for (sacrificing time, convenience, physical comfort, potential health side-issues in their opinion). This is key: they are not making a scientific call on the health of exercise, they are making a values judgement on your priorities.

I would suggest that you not brag about your priorities to someone who does not share them.
posted by celtalitha at 11:11 AM on March 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


This article in the WSJ might be of interest to you as well. For example, "In a study involving 52,600 people followed for three decades, the runners in the group had a 19% lower death rate than nonrunners. . . . But among the running cohort, those who ran a lot—more than 20 to 25 miles a week—lost that mortality advantage"--i.e., more than 3-4 hours a week of intense aerobic exercise.

Indeed. There have now been several well-conducted studies showing surprising U curved results. More than 20-25 miles a week - not optimal. Faster than 8 miles an hour - not optimal. More than 5 times a week - not optimal.

But there is a very, very major fly in the ointment here. We now understand that people respond to exercise dramatically differently, depending on their genetic makeup. Actually, only a small number of people are 'super-responders' who gain enormously from exercise (as measured by a number of biomarkers). Most are somewhere along a spectrum. But there are as many as 20% who do NOT seem to respond at all (again, as measured by those biomarkers), and there are even those - at the opposite end of the super-responders - who respond negatively (i.e. exercise makes them worse - measured by those biomarkers).

Now, take that diverse group of people and throw them together and then derive the statistics from their exercise routines over decades. You can see how problematic that's going to be - because those findings of optimums I mentioned earlier, may be purely a statistical artifact that describes few if any actual participants. It's like saying the average person in a group X of ten people makes $1000, only when you investigate you find out 9 make $10, while one makes $9990. Not one actual person in the group makes even close to $1000... yet, the statistical composite "average" person does.

So. Going by averages and deriving prescriptive exercise behaviors from that is not going to be much of an answer. The truth is, there is great individual variability, and no way - other than genetic testing - to know ahead of time what is likely to be the optimal exercise routine for you. Odds are, that some exercise is going to be good for you - again, that's odds. It's possible it won't be in your case, or it won't be in ways you hope for.

Bottom line - your parents' concern is not off the wall. But they have no way of knowing... except, neither do you. The only advice I can give is to listen to your body - really listen - and don't overdo things. Avoid injuries - including overuse and bad form injuries - and don't hurry any recovery if you do get injured. Moderate is probably the best statistical bet - unless you can get genetic testing. Even so - with genetic testing - we only test for certain things. There is still a lot we don't know.
posted by VikingSword at 1:10 PM on March 3, 2013


Twelve minutes of anything is utterly unlike a marathon.

If anything I'd be worried that you're not getting enough duration. 12 minutes is less than ideal for cardio. You might want to try alternating your current high-intensity short-duration sessions with something moderate-intensity moderate-duration. Running for half an hour works for me.

Having said that, there's some evidence that maximum-intensity short-duration exercise is really good for you. If you enjoy cycle-sprinting, keep it part of the program.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 3:33 PM on March 3, 2013


Overtraining is a real thing. But nothing you say in your post suggests you are doing it.

Symptoms to watch for include:
posted by lollusc at 3:44 PM on March 3, 2013


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