Overtraining Makes People More Impulsive

December 21, 2019
Exercising is one of the healthiest habits you can have. However, there are times when people become obsessed with it and push their bodies to their limit without considering that there's a negative side to it all. Today, we'll talk about them and tell you how overtraining makes people more impulsive.

Exercising has many benefits for your body and mind. It improves your fitness level, strengthens your muscles, tones your skin and, in addition, it’s great for your cardiovascular system and even for your cognitive ability. However, overtraining makes people more impulsive and can have negative consequences.

There are many problems you could have when you overtrain with little rest in between. For one, exercising can become an addiction. Other common disorders are muscle dysmorphia and addiction to running. Also, it could also lead to muscle injuries, cardiac and respiratory problems, worsening of the immune system, joint aging, and overtraining syndrome.

A person running.

Overtraining makes people more impulsive – the syndrome

Occasionally, sports training goes a little bit too far and escalates into overtraining or staleness syndrome. The syndrome is similar to work burnout and there’s a sharp drop in athlete performance, even when they rest. It manifests with a series of physical and psychological symptoms.

You can differentiate between physical and mental overtraining just by looking at the symptoms:

Physical overtraining

The physical and physiological symptoms that may manifest with this syndrome are:

  • Increased blood pressure and heart rate.
  • High body temperature.
  • Hypertension.
  • Weight loss and appetite.
  • Gastrointestinal disorders.
  • Muscle pains.
  • Vulnerability to infections and reduced defenses.
  • Increased cortisol.
  • Increase of fatty acids.
  • A decrease in iron, hemoglobin, and/or glycogen.
  • Mental overtraining.

In addition, the following psychological symptoms may occur:

  • Mood alterations.
  • Fatigue and exhaustion.
  • Anxiety.
  • Irritability.
  • Lack of concentration.
  • Low self-esteem and confidence.
  • Loss of libido
  • Sleeping disorders.

In addition, in a recent study, it was discovered that excessive training can lead to increased impulsivity. This fact doesn’t affect this trait simply, but it can have very negative consequences on behavior and health.

Impulsivity is a trait that leads to acting quickly, unexpectedly, and excessively when faced with internal or external stimuli. Therefore, the person acts without thinking nor considering the consequences.

The study

This past September, a French research group published an investigation about the consequences of excessive training on impulsivity. Specifically, how overtraining affects cognitive control.

To do so, they recruited a total of 37 triathletes, which they divided into two groups: the training overhead and the control group. Thus, 19 of them increased the duration of training by 40% in each session for three weeks while the other 19 trained as usual during the same period.

Thus, after the experimental weeks of training (of usual or overloaded intensity), the participants went in for an evaluation session. Researchers divided these sessions as follows:

  • For 50 minutes, inside a functional magnetic resonance machine, the athletes performed cognitive control tasks interspersed by three decision-making. There they had to choose between two economic rewards: an immediate one and a long-term one.
  • A 45-minute cycling session at maximum speed to trigger the effects of overloaded training. That is, they were looking for signs of fatigue.
  • 50 more minutes performing the same cognitive tasks and making decisions as those in the first block.

Thus, the researchers observed the excitability of the cerebral cortex, the performance in specific tasks, and the preference for immediate or delayed rewards.

What did they find?

The researchers were interested in cerebral cortex activity related to impulsivity and the results in the task of temporary decisions. Cognitive tasks were included, mainly, to activate said brain area.

When comparing the brain activity after 45 minutes of acute exercise with the activity in the first part of the session, they found a decrease in the activity of the lateral prefrontal cortex during decision-making, not in cognitive performance.

What this means is that overtraining has a negative effect on subjective decision-making tasks, consuming resources and hindering them.

Also, they observed that overtrained triathletes showed a greater preference for rewards of lesser amount, but earlier in time in that same task when compared with the control group and with their own level prior to overloading.

A man training another.

Overtraining makes people more impulsive – health implications

These results are relevant in several ways:

  • On the one hand, cognitive control versus impulsivity helps people perform tasks in a directed and conscious way. In sports, less cognitive control leads to a greater sense of security, pushing the body beyond its limits. Thus, not stopping or resting when necessary or valuing a more immediate reward, could lead the athlete towards riskier behavior and more injuries.
  • On the other hand, the preference for immediate gratification is similar to doping. It’s a high that impairs the organism and compromises long-term goals. For this reason, it has direct consequences for a person’s physical and psychological health.

In conclusion, as with most activities, accumulated fatigue due to overtraining can have a negative impact, both in the short and long term. Thus, it’s important to adopt healthy habits that include learning to make appropriate decisions and knowing not to push your body and your mind beyond their limits.