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 heart by modifying the risk factors known to cause heart disease,” explains Dr. Jeff Tyler, an interventional and structural cardiologist with the Orange County Heart Institute in California.


Lowers cholesterol.

Reduces blood pressure.

— Improves blood sugar.

— Decreases inflammation.

The heart works hard to take the oxygen from your lungs and then speed it and nutrients in the blood to all corners of the body. When you exercise, your body’s oxygen needs increase, which means your heart has to work harder.

Exercising regularly leads to better heart health over time; the muscle gets stronger and more able to pump blood when needed.

However, there are times when exercise can actually threaten the heart’s health.

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 of the top causes of death in the U.S., according to the American Heart Association. The AHA recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise for adults each week.

But you can have too much of a good thing. The first sign often shows up as regression in your progress or results. Sometimes referred to as overtraining, if you find that your muscles are sore all the time but you’re having trouble sleeping and keeping up with previously easy workouts, then something is probably wrong. It’s best to rest and seek medical advice.

More isn’t always better.

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 (it) can be a trigger for something worse,'” says Dr. Jonathan Drezner, a Seattle-based 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, for instance, that some who participate in frequent, high-intensity endurance activities, such as ultra-marathon runs of 50 or 100 miles, may experience “heart remodeling that may be harmful or increases in cardiac enzymes that may suggest heart injury,” Tyler explains.

To be sure, these individuals are not your typical weekend warrior type. 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 11 reasons 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 also focuses on the prevention of sudden cardiac death in young athletes.

Tyler notes that while most of his patients don’t need additional testing prior to starting an exercise regimen, some do. “Those with known heart disease or risk factors for heart disease, such as 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 as 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 may also be at higher risk for sudden heart problems while ramping up a workout or physical activity, such as shoveling snow after a winter spent indoors. 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, director of preventive cardiology and associate director of the Preventive and Rehabilitative Cardiac Center at the Cedars-Sinai Smidt Heart Institute.

“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,” adds 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.”

Kisha Carr, a CrossFit Level 2 Trainer and USA Weightlifting-certified trainer with Invictus Fitness in San Diego, California, says that “another rule of thumb is not to exceed your maximum heart rate.” The formula for finding your max heart rate is to subtract your age from 220. So, if you’re 40 years old, subtract 40 from 220 and that equals your max heart rate — 180 beats per minute.

3. You’re not regularly paying attention to your body.

But even if you’re a seasoned athlete, you still need to pay attention to how your body is responding to exercise each time. Endurance athletes and others who work out intensively for long periods can experience changes to the heart muscle (thickening and enlargement) that might elevate the risk for sudden cardiac events.

In a small 2019 study in PloS One, for example, researchers found that amateur triathletes (who were working out for about 27 hours per week on average) had “signs of sustained cardiovascular sympathetic overactivity” when compared to healthy, sedentary non-athletes.

The study noted that these signs could be a risk factor for future cardiovascular events. In addition, researchers noted that over time, the stress of each workout can result in changes to how the body responds to such stress, which could increase your risk of a cardiac event.

That said, exercise is still good for you. The axiom “the dose makes the medicine” is the key here. Sudden cardiac events among seasoned athletes are relatively rare, and exercise is still overwhelmingly good for your heart, as the American College of Cardiology noted in a 2015 analysis.

The point is to just be mindful of your limits, and if something doesn’t feel right, back off and take a rest or seek medical attention.

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

It’s important to keep tabs on your heart rate throughout your workout to make sure it’s tracking with the effort you’re putting in. If you’re exercising at a moderately intense level, for example, your heart rate should be between 64% and 76% of your maximum heart rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For a 40-year-old adult, that’s between about 115 and 137 beats per minute.

“If you’re exceeding 90% of your max heart rate continually for an extended period of time, that might be a red flag and you should see your doctor,” Carr says.

Similarly, if you experience a sudden spike in heart rate while exercising that seems disproportionate to the amount of effort you’re putting in, that’s definitely a good time to stop and make sure everything is OK.

Carr adds that “it’s also a good idea to listen to your body. If you feel like you’re overexerting yourself, then scale back your workouts.”

5. You experience chest pain.

“Chest pain is never normal or expected,” says Gulati, who also serves as president of the American Society for Preventive Cardiology and associate director of the Barbra Streisand Women’s Heart Center.

She 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 sweating — stop working out immediately and call 911, Gulati advises.

6. 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.

7. 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.

8. 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, but no matter where they happen, “if you’re cramping, that’s a reason to stop that’s not necessarily going to always be related to the heart,” Conroy says.

Although 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,” Conroy explains. Low potassium levels can be a culprit, as well.

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

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

9. 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 heartbeat and seek emergency care when symptoms occur. Such conditions can feel like fluttering or thumping in the chest and require medical attention.

10. Your sweat levels suddenly increase.

Suddenly sweating more than normal can also be a sign that something is amiss. The body uses sweat as its own air conditioning system to help rid the body of excess heat. Excessive sweating — beyond what’s normal for your body — could mean your body is too hot and it’s time to slow down and rest.

If weather conditions aren’t the culprit behind increased sweat output, it’s best to take a break and determine if something serious is at play.

11. You feel confused, or your workout buddy seems “off.”

Carr adds that “if you’re working out with a partner and you notice they seem confused, that could be another sign that they and you should stop.”

Often, it’s more likely that a workout partner will notice a cognitive change first rather than the person experiencing the issue (which is why it’s smart to pair up as a safety measure during exercise). So, if your buddy says they think something isn’t right, you should listen.

Ignoring these signs could be dangerous.

Not paying attention to these signs could lead to injuries, Carr notes, and “you could suffer irreversible damage to your body.” Any heart incident can impact other internal organs if they are deprived of adequate oxygen for a period of time.

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 a medical evaluation before returning to exercise,” he says. 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,” Tyler adds.

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 outweigh 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, make sure to take it slowly, especially if you’re new to exercise or at risk of heart problems. Any forward progress is still progress, but if you end up injured, then you can’t make any progress at all. While it’s important to push yourself sometimes, it’s also important to know when to back off a little to give your body time to rebuild.

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. Dr. James Suchy, a sports medicine physician with Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Southern California, says that the average adult needs 7 to 9 hours per night of sleep — “with a preference toward the high end if you’re exercising on a regular basis” — in order to get the most out of each workout.

You can return to exercise.

Exercising after a health crisis doesn’t need to be out of the question. One of Carr’s clients, for instance, experienced “a heart attack while exerting himself extremely hard,” she recalls. “Following his heart attack, we scaled back his workouts and, thankfully, he made a full recovery.”

Tyler notes that for these folks, treatments are available and 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,” Tyler explains.

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 adds. Talk with your physician about enrolling in cardiac rehabilitation to get back to doing the things you love.

Exercising after COVID-19 infection

Tyler notes that many COVID-19 survivors want to know 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,” he says.

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.

11 signs you should stop exercising immediately:

1. You haven’t consulted your doctor.

2. You go from zero to 100.

3. You’re not regularly paying attention to your body.

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

5. You experience chest pain.

6. You’re suddenly short on breath.

7. You feel dizzy.

8. Your legs cramp.

9. Your heartbeat is wacky.

10. Your sweat levels suddenly increase.

11. You feel confused, or your workout buddy seems “off.”

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Signs You Should Stop Exercising Immediately originally appeared on

Update 01/23/23: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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