We all know that exercise is good for you on many levels. On a grand scale, it’s among the fundamentals of promoting health longevity. For those who work out regularly, this is just a bonus to the many other perks of exercise you already enjoy.
With so many bonuses to working out—increased happiness levels, reduced risk of heart disease, better sleep, higher energy levels, increased strength and flexibility, improved memory, a boost in self-confidence, and better work performance—how could exercise be working against your health?
When you don’t take the recommended breathers to give your body time to recover.
It’s well known that exercise helps to increase bone mineral density, leading to stronger bones, but a new study from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada suggests that extended, high-intensity training sessions of elite athletes could actually reverse such benefits.
A team of researchers from Brock University in Canada, who presented their findings at the American Physiological Society (APS) annual meeting at Experimental Biology in Chicago, monitored changes in osteoprotegerin (OPG, a protein that hinders bone mineral loss) and sclerostin (SOST, a protein that obstructs new bone formation) levels in female rowers training for the 2016 Olympic Games.
What they found was that, by measuring the athletes’ blood samples, SOST levels fluctuated, with the highest levels spiking during the most intense training, and the lowest during the least intense.
“In this study, we did not measure the response during or immediately post-exercise,” says Nigel Kurgan, first author of the study, and his supervisor, Dr. Panagiota Klentrou, who is a professor in the Faculty of Applied Health Sciences at Brock University. “However, from our results we hypothesize that multiple intense workouts over an extended period of time—two to three weeks—without adequate recovery periods can lead to a continual increase in inflammation,” and interfere with bone rebuilding.
Though dual X-ray absorptiometry imaging used before and after the trial period revealed no change in bone mineral density, the researchers believe the significant changes in OPG and SOST expression during heavy training may be enough to show the risks of not allowing for proper recovery time between intense training workouts.
“Without recovery, both remain chronically elevated over extended periods of time,” Kurgan and Klentrou warned. “If these levels are chronically elevated, they could lead to a decrease in bone mineral density, thus decreasing bone strength and increasing the risk of stress fracture.”
The researchers note that such circumstances can only become worse for athletes who are also eating less to try to manage their weight, since this deprives their bodies of essential nutrients, which the body needs in order to rebuild after rigorous training.
As for how long people in general should take to recover after an intense workout, the researchers note that it’s different for each of us, so it’s best to listen to your body. “It should be noted as well that recovery does not always mean days off, but lower volume or intensity, or a combination of the two,” they add.
The biggest takeaway, according to the researchers, is that people need to balance intensity and volume in their workout programs. “Plan your weeks ahead and know that following one to two weeks of high volume, high intensity workouts, you give yourself at least one week where you are training at a lower volume and lower intensity to ensure you are giving your body (not just bones) time to adapt,” Kurgan and Klentrou say. The benefit, besides a stronger skeleton: “You’ll come back stronger for your next high intensity tracking cycle,” the researchers say.