If you’re someone who has excess pounds to shed that just won’t seem to budge – no matter how clean you eat and how hard you exercise – you’re likely suffering from a hormonal imbalance. And if you think that training harder is the answer, I’m here to tell you it’s not. And you need to stop as it’s probably doing you more harm than good. 

Intense exercise is one of the biggest mistakes women make when trying to lose stubborn weight. The irony is that often we admire those who run marathons, accomplish triathlon after triathlon or kick it at CrossFit. But the truth is, these weekend warriors are often doing themselves more harm than good and this kind of exercise can actually lead to weight gain. Here’s why.

Exercise is a stress on the body. Oftentimes a good stress, but a stress nonetheless. We should all exercise at the very least a few times a week, even better: once a day. But the type of exercise you do should be a big consideration, especially if you have hormonal imbalances, which so many mummies do.

If you’re suffering from HPA axis dysfunction (aka “adrenal fatigue”) or you’re dealing with a lot of stress, high-intensity exercise might not be your best friend and could actually cause you to gain weight. This is because exercise increases cortisol levels – our main stress hormone – and excess cortisol encourages fat gain, particularly around the abdomen.

Losing weight isn’t always as simple as calories in, calories out.

If you’re overtraining and not seeing the weight melt off you you’ve put yourself into a state of hormonal imbalance. Sure, you’re burning calories but these are predominantly glucose or glycogen (store glucose) as well as muscle tissue. This will in turn decrease your lean muscle mass and increase fat stores because your testosterone:cortisol ratio has been interrupted. Subsequently you have too much cortisol cursing around in your system, which will increase insulin levels (when cortisol rises so does blood sugar, read more about this here) and thus you’ll experience weight gain (because insulin is our fat storage hormone).

Excessive exercise can have very real health consequences

Increased cortisol from overtraining can also lead to sleep disturbances, digestive issues, depression, reproductive issues, weight gain and memory impairment. Additionally, it can affect levels of certain neurotransmitters including glutamine, dopamine and 5-HTP. This can lead to feelings of depression and fatigue. Overtraining can also negatively impact the immune system. Research has shown excessive exercise can lead to changes in natural killer cell activity (those cells that help us fight off cancer) as well as increased activation of peripheral blood lymphocytes. What this equates to is an over-stimulated immune system and this can lead to the development of autoimmune conditions. In fact this type of altered immune state has been linked to HPA axis dysfunction (“adrenal fatigue”) as well as hypthyroidism: two conditions commonly affecting intense athletes.

What are some golden rules to live by to avoid overtraining syndrome?

  1. If you’re suffering from health issues such as autoimmune disease, digestive troubles or HPA axis dysfunction then take a break from excessive exercise. Otherwise, high intensity exercise should be limited to two times a week and be sure to monitor yourself carefully for signs of overtraining syndrome.
  2. Don’t forget to eat carbs. Overtraining plus low carb diets can raise cortisol levels significantly and potentially lead to hypothyroidsim (a condition that’s often characterized by stubborn weigh gain).
  3. Get adequate rest in between exercising. This includes good quality sleep during which time your body can recuperate.
  4. Try some exercise that will help to reduce cortisol levels especially if you’re finding the weight won’t budge. Yoga, pilates and walking are some ideas. May sound counterintuitive, but remember; cortisol increases blood sugar, which increases insulin, which is our fat storage hormone. If you’re pumping out cortisol all day long due to high stress levels, then you add insult to injury by pumping out more cortisol by excessive exercise and you’re not losing weight, then you need to start reducing your cortisol levels ASAP.

So how do you know if you’re overtraining? Here are some signs:

  1. Disturbed sleep or feelings of restlessness
  2. You’re losing lean muscle mass or actually gaining weight
  3. Your joints and limbs ache
  4. You feel fatigued or sluggish
  5. You get frequent infections
  6. You feel terrible in the hours following an intense training session

So don’t make the mistake of thinking that intense exercise is always a healthy choice. It’s often not, and isn’t something I recommend, especially if you have hormonal imbalances.