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Feeling the burn can sometimes mean that you’ve been burned. In our fitness and appearance obsessed society, a sizeable portion of Americans have become fitness junkies. A lifestyle of healthy eating, stress-free living, and proactive exercise has become the most important goal in their minds. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, as the old saying goes, “You can have too much of a good thing.”

Exercise is something that is also to be practiced in moderation. A common pitfall of many that desire to be fit is to concentrate on working the body and forgetting about listening to the body. Fitness magazines, shows, videos, and athletes speak of feeling the pump, or feeling the burn. Feeling the burn is an actual biological process. It is sometimes referred to as catabolic tissue breakdown. This is the warm sensation or slight soreness in muscles you may feel after weight training, sports, and aerobics. This is a good sign that you have achieved positive exertion. However, the old mantra that says, “no pain no gain” is very bad advice.

In an effort to sculpt, build, and push our bodies sometimes we go too far. Many times this is done deliberately with the assumption that it will make us stronger. This is not true. To push the body farther than it needs to go can actually be counterproductive. Moreover, habitual overexertion can lead to an unhealthy mental state of being. It is necessary to “listen” to the body. Listening to the body means learning your body’s limitations and adjusting your expectations. Listening includes the physical as well as the mental.

Those who are in excellent shape and those still trying to reach their goals can benefit from learning how much exercise is too much. The physical signs are easier to spot than the mental. Here are three main signs from your body indicating the need to “listen”.

1. Muscle Pain. Never ignore pain during exercise. There is no such thing as “working through the pain”. In a desire to push the body it is tempting to continue exercising through the pain thinking it will go away. Pain is a strong indicator that something is awry. Muscle pain can indicate that it is necessary to stop and stretch. Working through such pain can result in pulling muscles, straining muscles, and even tearing muscles. As soon as pain is experienced, stop and assess what kind of pain is occurring. If the pain subsides after a short period of halting the activity, stretch, rest for a moment, and also have some water. This is an appropriate precaution because muscle pain or even cramping can be a result of dehydration.

2. Shortness of breath. There is a distinct difference between feeling winded and feeling shortness of breath. Try holding a normal conversation during a physical activity. If this is not possible, you are experiencing shortness of breath and need to bring your exertion level down a few notches. For example, if you are running with a buddy and can’t comfortably complete a sentence, you are exercising too hard. Exertion to the point of shortness of breath can be dangerous for several reasons.
Shortness of breath is an indicator that you are not taking in enough oxygen for your body’s demand. This could result in an inadequate amount of oxygen reaching the brain and/or the heart. Depriving the brain of necessary oxygen can result in lightheadedness or even mild disorientation. Depending upon the activity involved, injury could result. Depriving the heart muscle of necessary oxygen could result in chest pain that is sometimes felt during overexertion. When experiencing shortness of breath, decrease the pace of the activity until it is down to a level that is comfortable. Remember that the body is a machine that becomes more graceful, the more that it is worked. However, just like an over worked car, it will break down.

3. Lack of energy or weakness. Having to push oneself through a workout is a common occurrence. However, being weak and not having the energy to physically complete a workout and mentally not being motivated are two distinctly different things. If you feel weak as if you don’t have the energy to get through a physical activity, don’t exercise. You would do yourself more harm than good. It is possible that you need to rest and/or that you need to eat. Eating appropriately before exercise is just as important as the exercise itself. You cannot drive a car on empty. Your body is the same. In the same vein, your body also needs proper rest. Rest allows the body to recover, repair, and grow from physical exertion. Too much exercise without proper rest will actually decrease your physical fitness.

Once you have mastered “listening” to your body physically, it is important to also know your self mentally. Exercise should be a positive addition to your life and a part of your natural daily routine. Exercise should not be an obsession, should be done for your own personal satisfaction, and most importantly should make you feel healthier. Furthermore, consistent overexertion will result in decreased performance. Decreased performance will result in disappointing workouts, which will lead to being discouraged from exercise. To ensure proper mental conditioning it is important to condition yourself into a routine. Get your body accustomed to exercising and the same time on a daily basis. That way exercise will become second nature to you and expected part of your day. Another positive mental tactic is to look at exercise as time for you and no one else. Your exercise session is time for you to block out the world and be selfish focusing only on yourself. You are not in competition with anyone but yourself. Set goals that are attainable. Don’t look at what others in the gym are doing, or what people in magazines are doing, or even what your friends are doing. No one knows your body better than yourself. You will receive more mental satisfaction from meeting and exceeding your own goals as opposed to feeling defeated but not attaining the goals of some one else. Mentally seeing one’s body change for the positive may be a good thing. However, if one looks great and feels awful, then the exercise is in vain.

When your body and mind are in balance you will see great gains from your physical efforts. Concentrate on yourself not others, and your exercise will take you as far as you want to go. Let your body talk to you. You’ll come to enjoy the conversation.