“Suck it up Holt, c’mon now – we don’t have quitters on this team” I remember hearing at the end of high school football practice. I was lagging behind the group a little bit during our final sprint drills where we would run the length of the field. We’d sprint a full 100 yards each time. And then another 100 yards. And then another 100.

Oh man, it was brutal and some days I almost vomited.

But we pushed through the pain. We dug deep and got through it, embracing the “no pain no gain” mentality of a 17 year-old kid. 

Fast forward 18 years and I can’t help but think about that mentality as I look around to the modern fitness industry today. I see this “no pain-no gain” type of attitude everywhere.

I see people crushing themselves day in and day out. It’s almost like if you’re not dragging yourself off the floor in a pool of sweat, then you’re not training.

Now while I love getting after it and training at high intensities, I now have a much better appreciation for knowing when to tone it down and how important the recovery aspect of training is.

Recovery and stress management need to be prioritized. Why aren’t more people talking about this? I have my cynical reasons, but I’ll save those for another time.

Let’s talk about how you can make sure to manage stress and exercise within the context of your lifestyle. 

I read the book “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” and it changed my whole outlook on stress. We all probably know on some level how stress isn’t exactly good for us, but this book will completely shift your perspective and make you realize how dangerous chronic stress is to the human brain and body.

Today I’ll share with you how stress works in the body and how certain types of exercise piled on top of a stressful lifestyle can be a bad combo.

The main point of this article isn’t to tell you what you should be doing with your exercise. It’s simply to make you aware that exercise is in fact a “stressor” and if you already have plenty of “stressors” going on in your life, then more might not be better.

Let me explain.

Stress Management

I’ll take a working definition from the above mentioned book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. As author Robert Sapolsky states, “a stressor is anything in the outside world that knocks you out of homeostatic balance, and the stress-response is what your body does to reestablish homeostasis.”

So, the human body does everything in its power to restore balance. And this is achieved through the stress response.

Let me give you an example from our evolutionary past.

Seeing a lion out the wilderness is the most obvious example of stress and stress response. Our brain realizes this stressor (lion=danger) as life or death which then kicks into gear the stress response to this threat – increase heart rate and blood pressure to transport energy faster, dump various hormones into the system to raise focus and alertness, mobilize glucose from fat cells, liver, and muscles and shuttle them to the muscles needed to save your life.

All of a sudden, you’re running as fast as you ever run before in your life. Whew. We’re still alive.

What also happens in these times of duress is that long-term projects are placed on hold.

As Sapolsky says If there is a tornado bearing down on the house, it’s probably not the best time to repaint the kitchen. Digestion halts, reproductive organs slow, and building immunity stops. Why build up defenses for something that’s going to kill me in a year, when I might not be around tomorrow. The stress response is analogous to spending all your resources on the defense budget, but then not have anything left for healthcare and education.”

So we know that our stress response works really well to help fuel those leg muscles to run away from the real threat of being eaten alive. But if it’s constantly triggered and there is no lion present, we could be in for long-term trouble.

Where Does Exercise Fit In?

If you’re sleep deprived, wake up late, rush around scrambling to get a coffee, skip breakfast, sit in traffic, make 20 tough decisions at work, sit in more traffic, get home, and then expose yourself to more stress with exercise, you might be doing more harm than good.

Remember, the physiological response is the same, whether it’s running from a real threat or worrying about a psychological one. We release the same hormones, our blood pressure rises, digestion stops, etc. but we’re not running away from anything. Most likely, we’re sitting in our car in traffic or at a meeting with our boss.

Do this long enough and there’s no time to repair, recover, and rebuild. Basic metabolic functions start to malfunction, hormones are thrown out of balance, and a host of other problems can set in.

So What to Do?

Exercise as we all know is generally a good thing. And for you exercise junkies out there, you know how good that endorphin high feels. But not all exercise is created equal in the context of stress.

How long are you “stressing” your body? And at what intensity?

Doing long endurance runs, bike rides, even group exercise classes might be great for burning calories, but this is probably the worst type of exercise you can do from a stress perspective. It comes down to the duration of exercise – these long endurance workouts can be at least 60 minutes, most of the time up to 120 minutes a pop.

Compare that to doing short full body weight lifting sessions of 20 minutes focused on building muscle. This focus on the muscles has a host of other metabolic benefits and the response to this short bout of stress is positive – we get stronger and fitter because of it. This is great. This is why I am such of big fan of lifting weights.

So for most people, exercise is great. But if you find yourself running around stressed out, be careful not to over do it with long duration exercise.

A better solution would be to incorporate some of the below activities that will help you reduce stress levels.

Tools to Manage Stress

The key principle with stress management is getting out of that stress response state where heart rate and blood pressure increase as stress hormones are dumped into your system, and  instead, get into a more relaxed state where heart rate decreases, blood pressure drops, digestion kicks in, and the repair process starts up.

Here are a few simple ways to turn down that stress response:

Breathing

A simple 2-minute deep breathing session can drastically reduce your heart rate and trigger hormones that support digestion and recovery.

Yoga and meditation

Yoga and mediation can very effectively down-regulate the stress hormones and promote a calming, mood-enhancing state. 

Morning gratitude practice

Sitting for 3-5 minutes in the morning and writing down 3 things you are grateful for can reduce stress.

Walking

This just might be the most underrated form of exercise. It’s not sexy, it takes a little patience, but man oh man will it deliver the goods. I wrote all about it here.

I’ll leave you with a simple riddle. Can you guess what the “real” answer to this one below? Hint..it’s not “speaking english.”

Alcohol and fats

It’s most likely stress. 

So, besides speaking less english, what will  you do today to manage your stress? I want to know. Comment below or come over and join the conversation on our facebook page.

Enjoy your day, 

Nick

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