By Shiloh Woolman, Contributing writer

You're not one of those people sitting on the couch. You started pounding the pavement, adding exercise to your life -- but now you may be hurting or going backward with your training.

How do you know when you've had too much of a good thing? When your body starts to hurt or you can think of little else beyond your next workout, it might be time to reassess your fitness goals.


To be sure, overexercise is an affliction from which most Americans will never suffer.

"Data from 2005 indicate that less than half -- 49.1 percent -- of U.S. adults met the physical activity recommendation (laid out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)," Stanford researcher William L. Haskell told WebMD.com.

Gym Rats, Weekend Warriors Can Suffer

Despite that, plenty of people are hitting the gym on a regular basis. Some leave hurting.

"People think that during exercise, that's when you're building the muscle," said Bellevue, Neb., chiropractor Dr. Tom Smith. "What you're doing during exercise is tearing down muscles, ligaments and tendon."

That highlights the need for taking recovery time. Smith said the time between exercises -- particularly strength moves -- is as critical as the exercise itself. He recommends at least two days between strength training for the same muscles groups. Other experts recommend cardiovascular training no more than five days per week.

Smith treats patients complaining of sore feet, shoulders, knees and hips. He advises them to back off and consider whether they are progressing, holding steady or losing ground on their fitness goals.

"If you're not (getting) stronger in your workout ... then you might be overtraining. You may need to stretch (your routine) out to five days or seven days," Smith said, adding that he spaces his own workouts for the same muscles groups at five days. "You need a gradual progression in weight training -- not more than a 5 percent increase in weight or repetitions per week."

Novice athletes generally need more time to repair than people who already have a regular workout schedule, Smith said. That's because their bodies are still learning to repair the tears and strains created by exercise.

He said he sometimes has a hard time convincing patients to back off.

"To a certain extent, people get the high from the exercise, so it's sometimes a little difficult to stop that. But if they actually want to have repair (and get better) they need the recovery time," Smith said.

Obsession Can Creep Up

When overexercising progresses through physical pain to a psychological need, there may be signs of exercise obsession.

"Someone becomes addicted to exercise when they exercise more compulsively, despite the fact (they are) having other health effects or even a decline in physical fitness," said Dawn Obermiller, the employee wellness coordinator at Creighton University in Omaha. "Doing more isn't producing faster times or more weight loss, but is often going the wrong way."

The campus gym at Creighton has a poster on the wall that asks, "Are you exercising for the right reasons?" The sign lists heart health and socialization as good reasons to exercise, but the pursuit of physical perfection as a bad reason.

Dr. Todd Stull is a psychiatrist who works with both addicts and college athletes in his practice at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. He said exercise obsession -- sometimes called exercise bulimia -- tends to affect people between 15 and 30, and he estimates it touches 5 to 10 percent of the U.S. population -- a number that is growing.

Stull compares the need to exercise with other addictions he treats, including cocaine and alcohol.

"It's the four Cs of addiction. (The person) craves -- thoughts are centered on it, where am I going to get my fix?" Stull said.

Stull said the addict soldiers on, ignoring consequences such as overuse injuries or amenorrhea, when women stop getting their periods because of stress on the body. He said the third C is loss of control, and the fourth -- compulsion -- may mean that the exercise addict can think of only their next physical activity to the exclusion of family, friends and work.

Stull said addicts start to eschew other pastimes they used to enjoy and may get crabby if they miss a workout.

"The physical and psychological effects start to emerge: Exhaustion, not sleeping well, irritable, amenorrhea, anger, thirst, headaches, pain and soreness, they look washed out, drained, tired, hair loss or gain," Stull said.

Stull said exercise bulimia often accompanies other afflictions, such as anorexia, body dysmorphia or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Back Off, Treat The Problem