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How to Tell if You’re Working Out to Hard or Not Hard Enough

An image of a man running on a treadmill

Exercise is a crucial component of a healthy lifestyle. For those with hectic schedules, finding time to fit in a good workout can be difficult. To further compound the situation, instant gratification isn’t part of the exercise equation. You will not see results after the first time you workout. However, if you stick it out, then the longterm benefits are priceless.

Working out is not one-size-fits-all scenario either. Everyone is different. A workout routine that is challenging to one person is a piece of cake to someone else. This leaves the everlasting question: How do you know if you are working out too hard, or if you need to step up your game?

Benefits to Working Out

Before we dive into this age-old question, let’s take a minute to understand the benefits of regular exercise. It is no secret that exercise offers a myriad of benefits both physically and emotionally.

Physical Benefits

The most obvious and well-known benefits of working out are the physical benefits. Weight loss is one of the most noticeable benefits, and it prevents obesity. Obesity can lead to many health problems including diabetes, heart disease and so much more. Studies have even shown that exercise at a low intensity may accelerate the healing of wounds with individuals who suffer from Type 2 diabetes 1.

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Although many realize that exercise, especially aerobic exercise, helps to strengthen your cardiovascular system2, you may not realize that exercise also strengthens your bones, which can lead to decreased loss of bone density as you age. This can prevent osteoporosis3, especially in women.

Emotional and Mental Benefits

The physical benefits of exercise are important to your overall health, but it can be argued that the emotional benefits are far more valuable4. Everyone can use a little more energy to get through their hectic days. While you may think exercise will deplete your energy reserves, the opposite is actually true. That’s right, working out gives you more energy!

Have you ever noticed when you are feeling unfocused that a nice workout will help you reset and refocus? You aren’t imagining things. Working out keeps you mentally sharp and helps you focus5. This is due to exercise delivering oxygen to the brain which helps keep you sharp.

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Exercise keeps you mentally sharp and increases neurogenesis to help delay age-related cognitive decline and rejuvenates damaged brain cells and nerves. This happens restorative process happens through an increase in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).

Exercise can also help combat insomnia and relieve anxiety and depression. Studies show those who suffer from anxiety or stress-related disorders can get relief from symptoms with regular exercise. You may ask yourself how physical exercise can relieve anxiety and stress. The answer is quite simple. Physical exercise releases endorphins6 which act as your body’s form of painkillers.

An image of a woman stretching during a workout.

Different Types of Exercise

While it is true that any type of exercise is beneficial to your health and wellbeing, there are four different types of exercise you can participate in. Each type focuses on a different quality. The four types7 are:

  • Balance
  • Flexibility
  • Strength
  • Endurance

Ideally, all four types of exercise are incorporated into your exercise routine. This is not always possible, and that’s ok. With a little creativity and dedication, you can make the most out of any workout.

Nine times out of ten when you start working out you have an end goal in mind. This dictates the kind of exercise you focus on. The two most common goals are building muscle and losing weight. How do you know if you are doing enough to achieve these goals?

An image of a man lifting weights.

Are You Working Out Enough to Build Muscle?

Trying to build muscle, but not sure if you are working out enough to reach your goal? Many think jumping on a scale will give you your answer. This is not true. A scale can’t differentiate between muscle and fat. It’s even possible that a that a heavier person has more muscle than a lighter person. Let’s take a look at ways you can tell that you’re building muscle.

How Do Your Clothes Fit?

This is not a scientific way to determine if you are working out enough to build muscle, but it is a good indicator. If you have gained a little bit of weight, yet your clothes feel looser, this means you are building muscle. Muscle is denser than fat. This means fat takes up more space than muscle does. If you gain weight from fat, you will not only notice it on the scales but in how tight your clothes are. Your clothes will especially be tighter in the abdominal area.

Aim for Aching

That’s right! You want to feel the burn after you work out. Muscles which ache after a workout means you’ve pushed the muscle past its limit. The soreness comes from tiny tears in the muscle. Don’t panic this is a good thing! When the tears repair, the muscle will be stronger than it was before. Essentially this is the process of building muscle8; tearing and rebuilding the muscles. It’s important to note that you shouldn’t be in excruciating pain. This is a sign of an injury.

Are You Able to Increase Resistance?

As expected, when you build muscle, you become stronger. Let us say, for instance, you are able to bench press 70 pounds. At some point, you realize 70 pounds is no longer a challenge. This is a clear sign that you are building muscle. You will need to increase weights in order to keep building muscle. If you stay at the same amount of weights you will maintain.

An image of a woman checking her pulse during a workout.

Are You Working Out Enough to Lose Weight?

When you lose weight, you want to lose the right kind of weight. You want to lose fat, as opposed to lean muscle mass.

Body Composition

This is a service commonly offered by gyms to members. Body composition tests are measurements taken to determine the percentage of body fat and the percentage of muscle in the body. Skin-fold measurements taken with a density caliper determine how much fat is on the body.

Body Mass Index9 is another formula used to determine body fat. This is a test that can be done at home or at a gym. The formula is your weight in pounds, multiplied by 703 and then divided by your height squared.

Find Your Fat Burning Zone

The whole idea behind losing weight is to burn fat. In order to burn fat, you will need to exercise within your fat burning zone. This means your body is using fat stores instead of carbohydrates. Each person’s fat burning zone will differ based on age. How do you know where your fat burning zone is? Some pieces of workout equipment will tell you if you’re working out in your fat burning zone. This makes it really easy.

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If this isn’t the case for you, you can figure out your fat burning zone manually. Your fat burning zone is about 70 percent of your maximum heart rate10. To find your fat burning zone, you should subtract your age from 220. For instance, if you are 30 years old you would subtract to 220 from 30 which equals 190. Your heart rate should be about 190 beats per minute to exercise in your fat burning zone.

An image of older people exercising.

Intensity Level

Intensity level is important when trying to lose weight. You can lose weight at any intensity level, but the lower the intensity level the longer you must exercise to achieve the desired results. Let’s take a look at the different intensity levels.

Low-Intensity Exercise

If you are in this category, you aren’t breaking a sweat at all. You are able to easily carry on a conversation and even sing if you wanted to. This could be equated to walking into a store or walking around your home. Low-intensity exercising is a good addition to your workout schedule because you can burn extra calories easily.

Moderate-Intensity Exercise

During moderate-intensity exercise it should take some effort to talk. This doesn’t mean you can’t talk, it just means it isn’t easy to do. You will also break a sweat in common areas, such as your armpits. You should exercise at least 150-250 minutes per week to see weight loss results11.

High-Intensity Exercise

High-intensity workouts are characterized by an inability to carry on a constant conversation. In some cases, you may not be able to speak at all. The chances are also really good that you will be sweating like a pig. You cannot keep these exercises up for long, but they are the most effective when it comes to losing weight.

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It is generally a good practice to combine low-intensity, moderate-intensity, and high-intensity exercises into your workout routine for the best results.12

Is There Such a Thing As Working Out too Much?

Yes, you can certainly work out too much. Feeling constantly exhausted, working out multiple times a day, getting sick more often, mentally tired, and constantly sore are just a few of the signs13 that it might be time to tone down your work out regimen. Your body does need time to recover from strenuous exercise. Prolonged failure to allow your body to do so can result in negative health effect both physically and mentally.

An image of a fit couple posing for selfies

Men Are From Mars and Women Are From Venus

We’ve all heard this famous saying in an attempt to explain the differences between men and women. It is most commonly used to refer to the differences in the way men and women process information and handle various situations. When it comes to physical fitness and exercise, are there differences in men and women? The short answer is yes, there are differences — but they aren’t as drastic as most people are led to believe.

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Differences in Metabolism

This word has a tendency to make women groan. Unfortunately, this is not a myth. Women do tend to have slower metabolisms than men14. The reasons behind this include:

  • Men tend to have more lean muscle mass than women
  • Women’s’ metabolisms slow down at a faster rate as they age than men’s metabolisms
  • Men on average tend to be more active than women.

Hormones

It is common knowledge that the big difference between men and women are the sex hormones which determine whether or not you are a male or a female. Testosterone is male sex hormone and estrogen is the female sex hormone. The sex hormones testosterone and estrogen play a large role in the differences between men and women.15 In men, high levels of testosterone contribute to men inherently having higher levels of lean muscle mass than women. In women, estrogen plays a part in the metabolic processes and the slowing metabolism as they age.

Use It or Lose It!

This difference between men and women pertains mainly to strength training. Since women do not have as much lean muscle mass as men, they have a tendency to loose their conditioning faster than men. This factor is not a problem so long as women stay on a regular workout schedule. However, taking too much time off can lead to a loss of results.

Achieve Your Goals

Goals are a great way to measure progress and be able to quantify how far you have come. Exercising and working out does not provide instant gratification. It takes time and perseverance to be able to see your hard work pay off. Setting goals for yourself is a great way to stay motivated and keep track of the progress you have made. The most important thing is that you start somewhere.

You will reap physical and emotional benefits from even the smallest increase in exercise. Use the tips above to figure out if you are working out too hard or not enough and tweak your routine accordingly. Before you know it you will have achieved your workout goals!

Citations and Sources

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Keylock T, Meserve L, Wolfe A. Low-intensity Exercise Accelerates Wound Healing in Diabetic Mice. Wounds. 2018;30(3):68-71. [PubMed]
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Gomez-Pinilla F, Hillman C. The Influence of Exercise on Cognitive Abilities. Compr Physiol. 2013;3(1):403-428. [PMC]
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Harber V, Sutton J. Endorphins and exercise. Sports Med. 1984;1(2):154-171. [PubMed]
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Schmidt S, Tittlbach S, Bös K, Woll A. Different Types of Physical Activity and Fitness and Health in Adults: An 18-Year Longitudinal Study. Biomed Res Int. 2017;2017:1785217. [PMC]
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Costamagna D, Costelli P, Sampaolesi M, Penna F. Role of Inflammation in Muscle Homeostasis and Myogenesis. Mediators Inflamm. 2015;2015:805172. [PMC]
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Nuttall F. Body Mass Index: Obesity, BMI, and Health: A Critical Review. Nutr Today. 2015;50(3):117-128. [PMC]
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Carey D. Quantifying differences in the “fat burning” zone and the aerobic zone: implications for training. J Strength Cond Res. 2009;23(7):2090-2095. [PubMed]
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Donnelly J, Honas J, Smith B, et al. Aerobic exercise alone results in clinically significant weight loss for men and women: Midwest Exercise Trial-2. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2013;21(3):E219-E228. [PMC]
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De F. Is high-intensity exercise better than moderate-intensity exercise for weight loss? Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. 2013;23(11):1037-1042. [PubMed]
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Stirbys P. How Much Exercise Is Too Much. J Atr Fibrillation. 2013;5(5):819. [PMC]
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Blaak E. Gender differences in fat metabolism. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2001;4(6):499-502. [PubMed]
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Bowen R, Turner M, Lightfoot J. Sex Hormone Effects on Physical Activity Levels: Why Doesn’t Jane Run as Much as Dick? Sports Med. 2011;41(1):73-86. [PMC]
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