All of us have experienced stress from time to time. Stress can have many origins. It can come from our environment, our bodies, our own thoughts, and how we interpret the world around us. Commonly, the act of managing stressors in our lives gets overridden by the demands of life and family, and we often ignore the signals of stress and push on through no matter what. Now, it's natural to feel stressed sometimes. Still, it's essential to look deeper into how we can prioritize managing our stress when it starts affecting our overall health and our exercise routine.
We live in a modern society where we have accepted the day-to-day stressors with work or family as part of life's everyday demands. Some of us have experienced more stress in our lives at one point or another due to a traumatic event or a family illness. These factors can be very stressful, consume a lot of our energy, and put pressure on other responsibilities.
What is Stress?
Stress can be defined as our body's reaction to a challenge or demand. There are different kinds of stress, all of which can be experienced both physically and emotionally. When you experience stress, let's say, sitting in traffic and unable to make that important meeting, your nervous system sends stress hormones, including adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol that trigger sympathetic stress or "fight-or-flight" response, coined by Walter Bradford Cannon (1, 2).
You may notice your breath change and become shallow and fast in times of stress, as well as your heart beginning to race while your blood pressure increases. Once that acute stress has passed, your body calms down back to its normal state. It's good to point out that this response can be positive in situations where it can keep us alive, such as when our ancestors had to run from a predator to stay alert and motivated to survive.
What is Cortisol?
During times of stress, the adrenal glands that are located above the kidneys are responsible for releasing adrenaline and cortisol. Cortisol helps us respond with anti-inflammatory properties and have available energy stores by increasing blood glucose in our bloodstream and our brain. We need this to think and have the energy to get through the acute stressful event. Cortisol also helps metabolize fats, proteins, and carbohydrates, and it's essential for energy.
Cortisol is normally produced in varying levels throughout the day. Levels typically increase in concentration when you wake up and slowly subside towards nighttime. This provides a daily cycle of energy in line with our natural circadian rhythm.
However, thinking about other confounding variables like a stressful job, lack of sleep, and poor lifestyle choices that cause cortisol to be released more frequently can lead to elevated cortisol levels. Having these intense, stressful moments occur all day long can lead to fatigue and encourage poor eating habits as we are trying to reboot our energy supply. This is when we need to experience a state of parasympathetic response to help add balance to our stress hormones being released and help bring us back to a healthy baseline to get us out of this stress cycle.
All of these factors we can overlook and blame cortisol for us not meeting our health and fitness goals and can beat ourselves up at the gym trying to sweat out the stress. This increased exercise intensity can further increase cortisol levels during exercise. Depending on the time of day and our stress level, it can be too much, creating more imbalance.
Side Effects of Stress
When we experience stress frequently, it can have negative effects on the body, creating chronic stress. According to the American Psychological Association, the negative effects on the body can include symptoms such as increased heart rate, headache, trouble sleeping, muscle pain, digestive issues, change in sex drive, and high blood pressure just to name a few. Some emotional effects of stress my include anxiety, moodiness, restlessness, and feeling irritable (3).
According to a study on stress and immunity "Cortisol is ordinarily anti-inflammatory and contains the immune response, but chronic elevations can lead to the immune system becoming "resistant," an accumulation of stress hormones, and increased production of inflammatory cytokines that further compromise the immune response"(4). Our ability to fight off illness is reduced when we are chronically stressed. This resistance can lead to a pattern where we are chasing cortisol in our behavior rather than working on ways to get back to a balanced state.
Stress and Exercise
Commonly, people seek out physical activities to help relieve stress and cope with the day-to-day challenges and demands of modern life. Getting to the gym and aiming for an hour of running on the treadmill after a long stressful day at the office might not be the best option for you when choosing an exercise to de-stress.
Many people who seek out high-intensity exercise after having coffee at the office all day seek a dose of cortisol that they may not be sensitive to because they have become slightly resistant to it. But this enhances the problem. We run the risk of just chasing that cortisol release through intense exercise. Your goal instead can be to promote more relaxation and add resistance training rather than only doing cardio as your workout.
Keeping up a routine of cardio-only workouts will lead to increased storage of body fat, as well as prevent steroid-like hormones that normally help increase muscle mass. If done repeatedly, you will lose more muscle than fat, and in turn, your body will be less efficient at burning fat, leaving you with a slow metabolism.
Now, I'm not saying endurance exercise is unhealthy, but take into consideration how it affects your body if you're already in a state of stress. Exercise will provide a short-term stressor, which temporarily increases circulating levels of cortisol. Cortisol helps increase blood glucose levels, which can then be used to supply energy for exercising your muscles. Cortisol is meant to be an acute release, and the stress response is self -limiting in an average body. After exercise, cortisol levels typically return to back down to baseline. This is healthy to add a temporary dose of stress to build resilience through practice, primarily through resistance training rather than intense cardio sessions. Having more muscle on your body is like an insurance policy to maintain a higher metabolism and have an easier time burning fat.
Stress also has an effect on resistance training as your form is important with a proper range of motion. If we walk into the gym with tense muscles, shoulders up by our ears, a forward posture, and then add more stress on top of this already stressed body, it can be too much when we are not at a healthy baseline to begin with. Our workouts won't feel great, and we can leave feeling stressed and tighter.
If you're not recovering well after your workouts due to poor sleep and chronic stress at work and home, cortisol levels can be chronically elevated over time. Without adequate recovery, you can experience overtraining symptoms causing fatigue and changes in stress hormones as well (5), which over time are taxing on your system.
Taking a light walk and focusing on breathing and getting some natural sunshine can help relieve stress. I'd advise if you have had a really stressful week, make sure you are not choosing exercise that is too intense but rather more relaxing such as mobility and restorative style yoga. Remember, you are prioritizing managing stress, not trying to overwork your body.
Accepting what you can't control and then moving in accordance with problem-solving with what you can control helps many people begin to experience stress differently. A lot of stress can be managed more successfully with how you relate to it and changing your mindset. Reacting and fighting what is happening won't be positive for your head or your body, as we discussed earlier with the physiological side effects of increased stress hormones leading to chronic stress.
While some things are not solvable and are totally out of your control, you can incorporate more "recovery" activities into your life to add more of a parasympathetic response versus sympathetic (fight-or-flight). Recovery can mean many things, and it can include mediation, sleep, breathing techniques, connecting with close friends, and even mobility work.
Dr. Herbert Benson, author, and pioneer in mind-body medicine, teaches techniques to elicit the relaxation response creating a physical state of deep rest that changes a person's physical and emotional responses to stress. This is such a powerful tool to practice as well as incorporate into your day through visualization, breathing techniques, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation (6).
My favorite and immediate way to manage stress is incorporating breathing techniques such as box breathing (7) made popular by the former Navy SEAL commander, Mark Divine. It's a technique where you breathe in for the count of 4 seconds, retain your breath for the count of 4, exhale for the count of 4, and retain it out for the count of 4. Repeating this pattern for 1-3 minutes will calm your thoughts, slow your heart rate, and will help you control your physical and mental response to stress. This, in turn, will help you sleep better as you begin to add more parasympathetic response techniques to your day.
Remember, if your life doesn't include enough sleep and recovery, exercise on top of this stressful lifestyle can elevate cortisol levels and further interfere with other hormones and increase stress levels. Take an inventory of what your stress level is daily and make adjustments using recovery methods to enhance your physical parasympathetic response, and you will be able to get through stress much easier. Listen to your body, and you will become more mindful and aware of how you can apply these techniques to get through any stress in life.