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9 Signs You Should Stop Exercising Immediately




Love your heart. By now, surely everyone knows that exercise is good for the heart. “Regular, moderate exercise helps the…

Love your heart.

By now, surely everyone knows that exercise is good for the heart. “Regular, moderate exercise helps the heart by modifying the risk factors known to cause heart disease,” says Dr. Jeff Tyler, an interventional and structural cardiologist with Providence St. Joseph Hospital in Orange County, California.


— Lowers cholesterol.

Reduces blood pressure.

— Improves blood sugar.

— Decreases inflammation.

As New York-based personal trainer Carlos Torres explains it: “Your heart is like your body’s battery, and exercise increases your battery life and output. That’s because exercise trains your heart to handle more stress and it trains your heart to move blood from your heart to other organs more easily. Your heart learns to pull more oxygen from your blood giving you more energy throughout the day.”

But, there are times when exercise can actually threaten the health of the heart.

Would you know the signs it’s time to stop exercising immediately and head straight to the hospital?

Your heart (generally) hearts exercise.

There’s one thing to set straight: Exercise is overwhelmingly good for your heart. For most people, the benefits far outweigh the risks.

Physical activity is one of the most effective ways to ward off heart disease and stroke, two top causes of death in the U.S., according to the American Heart Association, which recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week.

But you can have too much of a good thing. The first sign of such, Torres says, often shows up as regression in your progress or results. “If you start to feel less energetic or strong overall, it may mean you’re doing too much too soon. If you start to feel groggy and have sore muscles all the time but are having trouble sleeping or staying asleep it may mean your stress level is way too high.”

These signs of trouble are sometimes referred to as overtraining.

More isn’t always better.

More exercise and more intense exercise isn’t always better, particularly for people with certain underlying heart conditions.

“There is a little bit of this cardiac arrest paradox, where we’re telling people, ‘Exercise is beneficial when you do it on a regular basis, but at times, can be a trigger for something worse,’” says Dr. Jonathan Drezner, a family medicine physician at the University of Washington who specializes in sports medicine.

Tyler adds that “recently, studies have investigated if there can be too much of a good thing when people participate in extreme, long-term endurance exercises.” There’s a concern that among people who participate in frequent, high-intensity, endurance activity, such as ultra-marathon runs of 50 or 100 miles regularly, may experience “heart remodeling that may be harmful or increases in cardiac enzymes that may suggest heart injury.”

To be sure, these individuals are not your typical weekend warrior type, and Tyler notes that “for the vast majority of Americans, these concerns about extreme exercise do not apply and the benefits of regular exercise far outweigh these small risks.”

However, here are nine times when you should stop working out immediately:

1. You haven’t consulted your doctor.

If you’re at risk for heart disease, it’s important that you talk to your doctor before beginning an exercise plan, Drezner says. For example, your doctor may provide specific guidelines so you can exercise safely after a heart attack.

Risk factors for heart disease include:

— Hypertension.

— High cholesterol.


— A history of smoking.

— A family history of heart disease, heart attack or sudden death from a heart problem.

— All of the above

Young athletes should be screened for heart conditions, too. “The worst tragedy of all is sudden death on the playing field,” says Drezner, who focuses on the prevention of sudden cardiac death in young athletes.

Tyler notes that most of his patients don’t need additional testing prior to starting an exercise regimen, but “those with known heart disease or risk factors for heart disease such as a diabetes or kidney disease often benefit from a more comprehensive medical evaluation to ensure they’re safe to begin exercising.”

He adds that “anyone experiencing concerning symptoms such chest pressure or pain, unusual fatigue, shortness of breath, palpitations or dizziness should talk with their doctor before starting an exercise routine.”

2. You go from zero to 100.

Ironically, out-of-shape people who can benefit most from exercise are also at higher risk for sudden heart problems while working out. That’s why it’s important to “pace yourself, don’t do too much too soon and make sure you give your body time to rest between workouts,” says Dr. Martha Gulati, editor-in-chief of CardioSmart, the American College of Cardiology’s patient education initiative.

“If you get yourself caught up in a situation where you’re doing too much too quickly, that’s another reason why you should take a step back and think about what you’re doing,” says Dr. Mark Conroy, an emergency medicine and sports medicine physician with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. “Anytime you’re starting to exercise or reintroducing activities, gradually returning is a much better situation than just jumping headfirst into an activity.”

3. Your heart rate doesn’t come down with rest.

Torres says it’s important to “pay attention to your heart rate” throughout your workout to keep tabs on whether it’s tracking with the effort you’re putting in. “We exercise to raise our heart rate, of course, but it should start to come down during rest periods. If your heart rate is staying at a high rate or beating out of rhythm, it’s time to stop.”

4. You experience chest pain.

“Chest pain is never normal or expected,” says Gulati, also division chief of cardiology at University of Arizona College of Medicine, who says that, in rare cases, exercise can cause a heart attack. If you feel chest pain or pressure — especially alongside nausea, vomiting, dizziness, shortness of breath or extreme sweatiness — stop working out immediately and call 911, Gulati advises.

5. You’re suddenly short on breath.

If your breath doesn’t quicken when you exercise, you’re probably not working hard enough. But there’s a difference between shortness of breath due to exercise and shortness of breath due to a potential heart attack, heart failure, exercise-induced asthma or another condition.

“If there is an activity or level that you could do with ease and suddenly you get winded … stop exercising and see your doctor,” Gulati says.

6. You feel dizzy.

Most likely, you’ve pushed yourself too hard or didn’t eat or drink enough before your workout. But if stopping for water or a snack doesn’t help — or if the lightheadedness is accompanied by profuse sweating, confusion or even fainting — you might need emergency attention. These symptoms could be a sign of dehydration, diabetes, a blood pressure problem or possibly a nervous system problem. Dizziness could also signal a heart valve problem, Gulati says.

“No workout should ever make you feel dizzy or lightheaded,” Torres says. “It’s a for-sure sign that something isn’t right, whether you’re doing too much or aren’t hydrated enough.”

7. Your legs cramp.

Cramps seem innocent enough, but they shouldn’t be ignored. Leg cramps during exercise could signal intermittent claudication, or blockage of your leg’s main artery, and warrant at least a talk with your doctor.

Cramps can also occur in the arms, and no matter where they occur, “if you’re cramping, that’s a reason to stop that’s not necessarily going to always be related to the heart,” Conroy says.

Though the exact reason why cramps occur isn’t fully understood, they’re thought to be related to dehydration or electrolyte imbalances. “I think it’s fairly safe to say the number one reason why people are going to start cramping is dehydration,” he says. Low potassium levels can also be a culprit.

Dehydration can be a big issue for the whole body, so especially if you’re “out in the heat and you feel like your legs are cramping up, it’s not a time to push through. You need to stop what you’re doing.”

To relieve cramps, Conroy recommends “cooling it down.” He suggests wrapping a damp towel that’s been in the freezer or refrigerator around the affected area or apply an ice pack. He also recommends massaging the cramped muscle while you stretch it.

8. Your heartbeat is wacky.

If you have atrial fibrillation, which is an irregular heartbeat, or another heart rhythm disorder, it’s important to pay attention to your heart beat and seek emergency care when symptoms occur. Such conditions can feel like fluttering or thumping in the chest and require medical attention.

9. Your sweat levels suddenly increase.

If you notice a “large increase in sweat when doing a workout that usually wouldn’t cause that amount,” that could be a sign of trouble, Torres says. “Sweat is our way of cooling off the body and when the body is stressed, it will overcompensate.”

So, if you can’t explain the increased sweat output by weather conditions, it’s best to take a break and determine if something serious is at play.

Ignoring these signs could be dangerous.

Not paying attention to these signs could lead to injuries, Torres notes, “and possibly be fatal. Not paying attention to your body and heart can put your heart at risk of cardiac arrest and have lasting effects.”

These effects can impact other internal organs, as they could be deprived of adequate oxygen to continue working normally.

Tyler agrees that listening to your body is best. “If a new or seasoned exerciser feels these symptoms, they should stop exercising immediately and seek out medical evaluation before returning to exercise.” Identified early, these potentially life-threatening heart conditions are treatable, and you can resume exercising thereafter. “However, left unchecked, they can lead to irreversible heart injury, heart failure or even death.”

All that said, Conroy stresses that exercise is nearly always a good thing. “I encourage people who haven’t been active for their entire lives to go back and get active. The benefits of exercise, when it comes to your heart, your blood vessels, blood pressure and blood sugar just far outweighs any risks to your body. I don’t want people to think, ‘oh my gosh, I could have a heart attack while I’m exercising!’ I don’t want them to choose to not exercise simply because of that.”

Slow progress is still progress.

Instead of risking injury or worse, Torres recommends taking it slowly, especially if you’re new to exercise or at risk of heart problems. “Slow progress is still progress. Working too hard and getting injured only puts you on the sideline and you won’t be able to exercise at all. Challenge yourself, but know when to ease off.”

Working with a personal trainer, coach or physical therapist can help you ramp up efficiently and adjust to an optimal level of exercise for your particular situation.

And don’t forget to rest. “A great exercise program not only has workouts programmed but also has rest and recovery days. Working out hard is great, but we only adapt and get better on our rest days.”

You can return to exercise.

Tyler notes that for individuals who have experienced a heart issue related to exercise, treatments are available. If the problem is addressed appropriately, you’ll likely be able to return to exercise.

“As an interventional and structural cardiologist, I have the privilege to treat and cure some of the heart’s most life-threatening conditions such as heart attacks, heart failure and valvular heart disease through minimally invasive heart procedures. However, after the heart attack is treated or the damaged valve is replaced, the healing process is not complete. Exercise training is critical after one of these life-threatening events to restoring a person’s function and quality of life,” he says.

If you’ve had a heart attack or recent heart surgery, “cardiac rehabilitation offers a means for supervised exercise training to allow people to safely recover and regain their strength,” Tyler says. Talk with your physician about enrolling in cardiac rehabilitation to get back to doing the things you love.

Exercising after COVID-19

Tyler notes that many COVID-19 survivors have asked him when it’s medically safe to return to exercise or competitive sports. “COVID-19 infection can cause significant cardiac injury with upwards of 1 in 4 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 infection developing cardiac injury.”

No matter whether you were asymptomatic, mildly symptomatic or required hospitalization for severe symptoms — you should talk with your primary care doctor or cardiologist about the safest way to return to exercising after COVID-19.

9 signs you should stop exercising immediately:

1. You haven’t consulted your doctor.

2. You go from zero to 100.

3. Your heart rate doesn’t come down with rest.

4. You experience chest pain.

5. You’re suddenly short on breath.

6. You feel dizzy.

7. Your legs cramp.

8. Your heartbeat is wacky.

9. Your sweat levels suddenly increase.

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9 Signs You Should Stop Exercising Immediately originally appeared on

Update 08/25/21: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.




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