The pressure to exercise regularly is everywhere, from advertisements to doctor’s offices to everyday dinner conversations. That’s not totally a bad thing. Movement benefits our mental health and physical well-being in many ways.
But going too hard or too fast, or pushing your body without resting enough can backfire: It’s all too easy to overwork ourselves and end up with exercise burnout.
Signs that your workouts are burning you out include extra fatigue, a lack of motivation, or even dread around going to the gym. This could leave you feeling discouraged or ashamed (though, in reality, you have nothing to be ashamed of!). At what point is it time to start your exercise burnout recovery? How can you get out of that rut when it feels so deep?
Symptoms that suggest exercise burnout is on the horizon
Knowing what exercise burnout signals to look for in your body and mind is paramount to your well-being. After all, excessive exercise can lead to injuries, illnesses, emotional fluctuations, and more.
Eric O’Connor, a certified CrossFit trainer, shares some signs that indicate your body is either burned out from exercise or is about to be:
Your resting heart rate after waking up in the morning either increases or decreases five percent or more from what is normal for you
Restlessness or trouble falling asleep (even if you technically slept enough hours)
A loss of appetite (a sign your body is stressed and not fully recovering)
Prolonged or unexpected soreness
Symptoms of an illness
Not performing as well or struggling more with your workouts (resist the urge to go harder at that point, O’Connor warns)
“Keep track of these markers for seven to 10 days to identify your ‘norms’ before making judgments based on negative-trending indicators,” he says. “If you notice two to three of these markers trending in the wrong direction, consider taking a rest day or doing a low-intensity session.”
The importance of rest
Even if you don’t think you need as much rest as other people, don’t underestimate what proper recovery can do for you. “Even the most disciplined individuals will have periods of time where their motivation for exercise fluctuates from feelings of ultra-high levels of motivation to days where motivation is lacking, or they are feeling burned out from exercise,” O’Connor says.
What’s more, while we have cultural messages all around telling us that rest must be “earned,” that’s actually not the best route. “‘Choose rest before rest chooses you’ is the slogan used at the CrossFit Level 1 Certificate Course,” O’Connor adds. “In order to seek the results you’re after, you must allow time for recovery both for the body and the mind.” A longer or more intense workout is not necessarily better in every case.
5 steps to exercise burnout recovery
Once you’ve rested, your body feels physically better, and those above markers have gone away, what can help with the mental aspect of burnout and motivation? Here are some tips from O’Connor:
1. Don’t rely on motivation alone
Believe it or not, activation often precedes motivation. In other words, you may have to take a few steps first to get that boost you want. “I think it’s important to understand that expecting to be motivated on a daily basis is unrealistic,” O’Connor says. “The unfortunate reality is that it may take some planning and commitment.” If you want to work out but aren’t totally feeling it, commit to just 10 minutes, then take stock of how you feel—odds are that once your blood’s flowing you’ll likely want to keep going.
2. Work out with other people
Getting in some movement with a friend can be more fun than exercising alone, and it helps keep you accountable. “On the days where motivation is lacking, people will still show up just because it might be the most fun part of their day, and the energy can be through the roof,” O’Connor says. He recommends finding a workout buddy or signing up for a group fitness class.
3. Set goals
Knowing what you want out of a workout can also encourage you. “Exercise can become less motivating when it feels aimless,” O’Connor says. “Set a couple of goals that are important to you, or sign up for an event.” This could include running an upcoming 5K with a friend, signing up for a new sports league, or aiming to lift heavier weights. Remember to make your goal SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely)—and more about adding to your life than taking away.
4. Make sure lifestyle factors are in check
“When motivation or recovery is lacking, it is usually a sign that areas outside of the gym need improvement,” he says. This might include:
Nutrition: Are you incorporating plenty of protein, carbohydrates, and fat each day? (The amount will differ for each person, so listen to your body and consider working with a registered dietitian.)
Sleep: Are you sleeping long enough and deeply enough? If not, O’Connor suggests a sleeping ritual at the same time every night. “This could include turning off your devices an hour before bed (blue light from phones, TVs, and iPads disturb our bodies’ attempts to find sleep), reading, or a warm shower,” he suggests. “A dark, cool room also promotes better sleep.”
Stress: Consciously work on relaxing your mind and body through therapy, mindfulness, breathing exercises, and other activities that help you feel good.
5. Switch up your workout routine
Doing the same type of exercise every day can get boring quickly, so O’Connor recommends adding other activities if you feel unmotivated. “Use different pieces of equipment, do some different movements, or maybe even avoid the gym for a week and put your fitness to use outdoors,” he says. Switch things up with hot girl walks, outdoor bike rides, or hikes somewhere beautiful nearby.
Last but not least, remember that exercise doesn’t have to be grueling to benefit your mind and body. As the CDC states, movements such as pushing the lawn mower, yoga, gardening, and water aerobics “count” and are something to be proud of, too.
Want to take the slow lane today? Try this routine: