Exercise & Fitness

Although Princeton students usually have very busy schedules, it is essential that you make time for exercise in order to lead a healthy life. In fact, fitting exercise into your daily routine will likely help you accomplish other goals for the day, such as studying and getting a good night’s sleep. Because physical fitness can increase your concentration, stamina, energy, and mental well-being, you are more likely to be productive while studying. Exercise is also a great stress reducer, and can enhance self-confidence. Long-term benefits include lowered risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity.

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How much time should I spend exercising?

Aerobic activity, such as walking, jogging, biking, or swimming should be done 3-5 times a week for 20-60 minutes at a time. Weight training should be done less frequently − 2-3 times a week − because your muscles need greater time to recover after resistance workouts. If you don’t have time to schedule such workouts, think about ways you can fit physical activity into your daily routine. Perhaps you can take the stairs instead of the elevator, or take a short walk when you have a few free minutes. Long hours of studying can be made more productive if you take occasional breaks to walk around and get your blood flowing. You will feel more energized and ready to work when you return to your desk.

How do I follow an exercise regimen?

The best advice is to choose an activity that you enjoy. If you look forward to exercising you will be far more likely to stick to your physical fitness plan. Sign up for an intramural sport through your residential college or eating club, or make up your own team. You will not only have fun playing athletic games with peers, but you will also meet new people. Joining a team can lend support to faltering self-discipline because the team’s performance depends on your physical fitness and your commitment to showing up at practices and games. If you miss practices or games, you will not only be letting yourself down, but also your teammates. 

If you’d rather exercise on your own, make sure you set goals for yourself. You may want to lose a little weight or get in shape for a sport during the off-season. Avoid overexertion by beginning slowly and eventually working up to longer and more intense workouts as you get in better shape. Starting an exercise routine with high intensity workouts may deter you from exercising at all as you experience pain and fatigue. Each training session is an important, yet small step on the way to reaching your fitness goals. Don’t focus on the effects of working out on a daily or weekly basis, but notice your progress over months and years. Reaching your fitness goals is a long-term process. Keeping track of your progress will give you confidence to see how far you’ve advanced since you started, and make you more responsible for completing a planned routine.

Overtraining Syndrome

Reprinted from SportsMedWeb- Mark Jenkins, M.D. Rice University

It is no secret among athletes that in order to improve performance you've got to work hard. However, hard training breaks you down and makes you weaker. It is rest that makes you stronger. Physiologic improvement in sports only occurs during the rest period following hard training. This adaptation is in response to maximal loading of the cardiovascular and muscular systems and is accomplished by improving efficiency of the heart, increasing capillaries in the muscles, and increasing glycogen stores and mitochondrial enzyme systems within the muscle cells. During recovery periods these systems build to greater levels to compensate for the stress that you have applied. The result is that you are now at a higher level of performance.

If sufficient rest is not included in a training program then regeneration cannot occur and performance plateaus. If this imbalance between excess training and inadequate rest persists then performance will decline. Overtraining can best be defined as the state where the athlete has been repeatedly stressed by training to the point where rest is no longer adequate to allow for recovery. The “overtraining syndrome" is the name given to the collection of emotional, behavioral, and physical symptoms due to overtraining that has persisted for weeks to months. Athletes and coaches also know it as "burnout" or "staleness." This is different from the day-to-day variation in performance and post exercise tiredness that is common in conditioned athletes. Overtraining is marked by cumulative exhaustion that persists even after recovery periods.

The most common symptom is fatigue. This may limit workouts and may be present at rest. The athlete may also become moody, easily irritated, have altered sleep patterns, become depressed, or lose the competitive desire and enthusiasm for the sport. Some will report decreased appetite and weight loss. Physical symptoms include persistent muscular soreness, increased frequency of viral illnesses, and increased incidence of injuries.

There have been several clinical studies done on athletes with the overtraining syndrome. Findings in these studies have shown decreased performance in exercise testing, decreased mood state, and, in some, increased cortisol levels -- the body's "stress" hormone. A decrease in testosterone, altered immune status, and an increase in muscular break down products have also been identified. Medically, the overtraining syndrome is classified as a neuro-endocrine disorder. The normal fine balance in the interaction between the autonomic nervous system and the hormonal system is disturbed and athletic "jet lag" results. The body now has a decreased ability to repair itself during rest. Heaping more workouts onto this unbalanced system only worsens the situation. Additional stress in the form of difficulties at work or personal life also contributes.

It appears that there are two forms of the syndrome. The sympathetic form is more common in sprint type sports and the parasympathetic form is more common in endurance sports. In the sympathetic form, the resting heart rate is elevated. In the parasympathetic form, however, the resting heart rate is decreased. If this sounds confusing, then you are not alone. There is very little agreement in the literature about abnormal laboratory findings. Additionally, it is possible to have the overtraining syndrome, but have completely normal physical findings and biochemical tests. At this point, there is no single test that will confirm the presence of overtraining. The overtraining syndrome should be considered in any athlete who manifests symptoms of prolonged fatigue and performance that has leveled off or decreased.

Athletes training with a heart rate monitor may notice that they cannot sustain the workout at their usual "set point." Fatigue takes over and prematurely terminates the workout. Regulation of glucose can become altered and the athlete may experience symptoms of hypoglycemia during exercise.

When diagnosing overtraining syndrome, it is important to exclude any underlying illness that may be responsible for the fatigue. The only treatment for the overtraining syndrome is rest. The longer the overtraining has occurred, the more rest required. Therefore, early detection is very important. If the overtraining has only occurred for a short period of time (e.g., 3 - 4 weeks) then interrupting training for 3 - 5 days is usually sufficient rest. After this, workouts can be resumed on an alternate day basis. The intensity of the training can be maintained but the total volume must be lower. It is important that the factors that lead to overtraining be identified and corrected. Otherwise, the overtraining syndrome is likely to recur. The alternate day recovery period is continued for a few weeks and then an increase in volume is permitted. In more severe cases, the training program may have to be interrupted for weeks, and it may take months to recover. An alternate form of exercise can be substituted to help prevent the exercise withdrawal syndrome.

All of the medical studies and advice on overtraining have involved single sport athletes. For tri-athletes and other multi-sport athletes the recovery process may be different depending on the circumstances. If it can be identified that the overtraining has occurred in only one discipline, then resting that discipline along with significant decreases in the other sports can bring about full recovery. It is vitally important not to suddenly substitute more workouts in one sport in an attempt to compensate for rest in another. The athlete that does this will not heal the overtraining, but will drive him or herself deeper into a hole. Overtraining affects both peripheral and central mechanisms in the body. Resting from overtraining on the bicycle by swimming more will help a pair of fatigued quadriceps, but to the heart, pituitary, and adrenals, stress is stress.

As with almost everything else health related, prevention is the key. Well-balanced gradual increases in training are recommended. A training schedule design called periodization varies the training load in cycles with built-in mandatory rest phases. During the high workload phase, the athlete alternates between high intensity interval work and low intensity endurance work. This approach is used by a number of elite athletes in many sports.

A training log is the best method to monitor progress. In addition to keeping track of distance and intensity, the athlete can record the resting morning heart rate, weight, general health, how the workout felt, and levels of muscular soreness and fatigue. The latter two can be scored on a 10-point scale. Significant, progressive changes in any of these parameters may signal overtraining. Avoiding monotonous training and maintaining adequate nutrition are other recommendations for prevention. Vigorous exercise during the incubation period of a viral illness may increase the duration and severity of that illness. Athletes who feel as if they are developing a cold should rest or reduce the training schedule for a few days.

In conclusion, the prevailing wisdom is that it is better to be under trained than over trained. Rest is a vital part of any athlete's training. There is considerable evidence that reduced training (same intensity, lower volume) for up to 21 days will not decrease performance. A well-planned training program involves as much art as science and should allow for flexibility. Early warning signs of overtraining should be heeded and schedule adjustments made accordingly. Smart training is the path to faster times and good health.