What You Need To Know About The Life-Threatening Condition Caused By Exercise

Written by Leigh Weingus

Photo by Jacob Lund

Injuries, exhaustion, crazy tight muscles. As extreme exercise creeps out and slow fitness rushes in, a number of conditions associated with exercising too hard and too fast have come to light: Namely exertional heatstroke in young athletes and rhabdomyolysis in everyday people looking to be fit and healthy.

"I thought my body just wasn’t used to that kind of muscle ache because it was my first class," schoolteacher Christina D’Ambrosio told the New York Times of the extreme pain she experienced after taking up spinning. As it turned out, she had rhabdomyolysis, a life-threatening condition that occurs as the result of an extreme workout.

Should regular exercisers be worried about their bodies breaking down as a result of extreme exercise? Not necessarily, but there are a few things to keep in mind.

When should you be worried about your exercise habits?

Let's clear one thing up: Rhabdomyolysis isn't exactly common—but it is serious. "Exertional rhabdomyolysis is an extremely rare and potentially life-threatening condition that can occur after extreme workouts," explains Kirk A. Campbell, M.D., sports medicine surgeon at NYU Langone Health. "It results from muscle breakdown and can lead to extreme muscle pain and swelling that results in muscle breakdown that releases the enzyme myoglobin and creatine kinase into the bloodstream, which can potentially cause damage to the kidney. It has been reported in bodybuilders, CrossFit enthusiasts, football players, and other sports that require high-intensity training. It is critical to recognize the signs of this condition and to seek immediate medical attention."

So, what are some signs that your body is sounding alarm bells? Campbell says it's critical to watch out for extreme muscle fatigue or pain. "This can lead to weakness, muscle swelling, and eventually there can be changes in urine output and color due to the muscle breakdown that can result in kidney damage," he says.

Preventing rhabdomyolysis.

Scary as it is, you can easily take steps to prevent rhabdomyolysis. First and foremost, remember that everyone's body is different and that we're all at different levels of fitness. "It is important to know you true fitness level before engaging in high-intensity training, says Campbell. "You should consider working with a trainer to develop a training program so that you don’t progress too fast. And give your body enough time to recover in between workout sessions—at least 24 hours between sessions. And stay hydrated! Dehydration has been shown to increase the odds of developing rhabdomyolysis after high-intensity training.”

Darria Long Gillespie, M.D., MBA, and ER doctor and SVP of Clinical Strategy at Sharecare, adds that when working with weights, it's important to make sure you're using proper form. "Start slowly and work up over the course of weeks—not an hour," she says. "Most importantly, listen to your body, and find the form of exercise that you enjoy. Exercise should be a challenge, but it need not be torture."

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Remembering why exercise is important.

Exercise is an amazing way to improve mental health, physical health, and help you live longer—but the last thing it should do is put your life at risk. "Exercise is amazing—as far as 'magic pills' go for longevity, mental health, and overall wellness, it's about as close as you can get," says Dr. Gillespie. "That said, like anything, there can be harm from taking it too far. As a physician, what I see most commonly are people who are not well-conditioned for a particular activity suddenly jumping into the highest intensity. Add that to the fact that many of the high-intensity workouts emphasize going faster, harder, and longer without any guidance on proper form, and it's a setup for injury."

In other words, don't let this rare disease scare you away from exercise. As long as you use proper form, give your body adequate time to recover, and listen to your body, you'll be just fine.

Want ideas for what to do between workouts? Here's everything you need to know about active recovery, plus some passive recovery tactics you should try.

Ready to learn more about how to unlock the power of food to heal your body, prevent disease & achieve optimal health? Register now for our FREE web class with nutrition expert Kelly LeVeque.

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