05/21/2012 08:22 am ET Updated Jul 21, 2012

Double-Dipping Workouts

The New York Times recently ran an article about a fitness trend of people who workout two to three times a day, commonly referred to as "double- or triple-dipping." Indeed, variety is a crucial part of any workout or diet. Our bodies respond well to subtle changes. (See my previous HuffPost article, "Wear Your Fitness in Layers.")

But if you workout two to three times a day, for extended periods, you waste a tremendous amount of time, may cause your body to release the "fat-preserving" hormone cortisol, and you actually run the risk of making yourself sick through exercise-induced stress. Personal case study: I used to subscribe to a "the more the better" philosophy. If one workout was good, two would be better and three would be ideal. Eventually, I proved myself wrong.

On a daily basis, I love pushing myself through exercise. A typical schedule of workouts was: One hour of bootcamp three times a week (MWF), one-hour kickboxing sessions two times a week (TTh), and then I added 1.5-hour capoeira (a Brazilian martial art) sessions two times a week after kickboxing (TTh). I wanted to explore the far limits of my body. Well, I found it.

A few months after adding capoeira to the schedule, I started feeling off. One morning I woke up with a fever and hives all over my body. I had adult-onset chickenpox. I succeeded in finding the limits of my body, and was now dealing with the physical backlash. My doctor informed me that excessive activity caused a re-release of the chickenpox virus I had as a child. He explained that, in spite of the benefits of exercise, it does put stress on the body. Too much exercise can be counterproductive. The majority of health issues are caused by too little physical activity, but in a small percentage of cases, too much activity can result in problems.

While my experience was atypical, double and triple workouts increase your risk of over-training dramatically. This is a particular problem for "type A" personalities. Overtraining syndrome frequently occurs in people who train beyond the body's ability to recover. Too much exercise with too little rest can result in symptoms like continual fatigue, muscle and joint pain, a sharp drop in performance, decreased immune function, depression, irritability, and an increased risk of injury.

Excessive exercise will not equal a better body. Although we may love to exercise, it is a form of stress. When chronic levels of stress are high enough (e.g., exercising two to three hours a day) your body releases the hormone cortisol. This steroid hormone alters your metabolism to provide immediate energy to deal with the stress. Chronic stress elevates cortisol levels and triggers an emergency situation in the body. Fat is preserved and muscle mass is broken down. The result is that chronic stress, even when exercise-induced, makes us fat.

Balance is the key to a healthy lifestyle. To many of us, time is our most precious commodity. We would love an extra hour's sleep, one more day on vacation, or a morning free. So when we take time out of our schedules to exercise, we should use our time efficiently. Studies have shown that a single high intensity workout is more effective at burning fat than endurance training. One study showed that participants who performed high-intensity interval training lost three times more fat than the endurance training group, despite expending less than half as many calories. There is no way that a person can work out for two to three hours a day at a high intensity. We simply burn out. The solution is to work out smarter, not longer.

Hours of exercise leave you with no time or energy to enjoy life. We want happier, fuller lives, which will not be found on the inside of a gym. Enjoy fitness, play with the different varieties of exercise out there... but not all in one day. Your body and mind will thank you for it.

For more by Stacy Berman, click here.

For more on fitness and exercise, click here.

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
Life hacks and juicy stories to get you through the week.