According to the American Institute of Stress, 77% of people in the U.S. experience physical symptoms of stress, and 73% experience psychological symptoms caused by stress.
Fatigue, headache, upset stomach, and muscle tension were the top physical symptoms of stress in the 2014 study by the American Psychological Association.
We all know that stress is bad for our health. Developing stress reduction techniques in our lives is crucial to our wellness.
One of the most popular forms of stress reduction is exercise. Our doctors recommend it, and there are additional benefits to exercise, such as increased confidence, opportunities to socialize if you’re at a community-driven gym, and being able to beat up Zombies should we ever have a viral outbreak that plagues us with flesh-eating monsters.
A good workout routine can improve our mood, reduce the risk of various diseases, help us get better sleep, and more, but exercise is also a stress on the body, so how much exercise is too much?
Is there a point where too much of a healthy thing, like exercise, does more harm than good?
WHAT IS STRESS?
The term stress” was coined by Hans Selye in 1936, who defined it as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.”
By this definition, we are constantly undergoing stress of some kind. If we want to grow, if we’re going to improve in any area of life, we need to give our bodies a demand for change.
Just like most things in life, stress has a good side and a bad side, and we have to get the dose just right for it to be our medicine.
Here’s how stress works…
CORTISOL AND MODERN LIFE
When your body is exposed to any stressor, it responds by excreting cortisol from the adrenal glands to cope with the stress.
The fact that we produce cortisol is a smart evolutionary tactic; if it’s in small doses. We need the “stress hormone” cortisol to act in stressful times. Cortisol increases blood sugar, thereby helping to mobilize energy. It also has an anti-inflammatory effect and is a natural painkiller.
Should you have to fight a bear who snuck up on you while camping, or if your house caught on fire, cortisol is your friend. However, not all stressors warrant the big cortisol trade-off. Because, yes, like most things cortisol comes with a price tag.
The long-term effects of high cortisol due to chronic daily stress are not desirable. Cortisol also slows digestion, inhibits sex hormone effects, increases sodium retention leading to high blood pressure, suppresses immune function, alters thyroid function, and depletes the body of precious minerals.
At the start of our adult or young adult stress journey, increased cortisol can feel good, kind of like a binge weekend in Vegas, but overtime, chronically high cortisol leaves people depleted, tired, and anxious. Chronic stress can lead to a lowered sex drive, poor digestion, anxiety, depression, and a weakened immune system.
You have to ask yourself, is sleeping too little, eating poorly, being in a negative relationship, or working long hours at a thankless job worth the effects of chronic stress?
We also need to talk a look at the overall volume of stress in our lives to see if we have room for one more stressor (good or bad).
Exercise, even with its many benefits, can be stressful to the body,
When it comes to exercise, we need to consider the big picture of our modern, stress-laden lives to find the right dose of fitness that’s right for us.
How many demands for change (i.e. stressors) are you faced with daily?
Here’s an example of a pretty average day of demands:
- The alarm clock wakes you up
- You need a cup of coffee pronto!
- Whoops, the cat got out the back door!
- You’re running late and you skip breakfast
- Deadline to meet at work
- Eat a salad for lunch because you’re trying to lose weight, feel deprived
- End up grabbing a muffin from the break room
- Your significant other texts you that you forgot to take the trash out, again
- Go to the gym after work to work on that summer bod
- Mom calls you to let you know your Aunt Sally isn’t doing so well
- It’s been a busy day, so you reward yourself with a couple of glasses of wine with dinner to unwind
- You talk with your partner about finances
- You feel anxious, and you stay up a little later than usual that night
DOSE-DEPENDENT “GOOD” STRESS
All these daily actions and reactions are stressful to the body. Each stressor is asking the body to adapt to it, mentally or physically. Each stressor on its own wouldn’t cause a big problem. However, when they are stacked on top of each other day after day, they can result in chronic stress for some people.
However, just because too much stress is unhealthy, let’s not quit our jobs, sit on the couch watching Netflix, and never do anything that challenges us.
Some stress is good. It helps us feel motivated. It keeps us alert and engaged. Too much pressure negates the positive effects. We feel anxious or obsessed, overwhelmed, or numb.
Without a healthy dose of stress, you will feel bored, directionless, and lazy.
THE MAGIC DOSE OF EXERCISE
How much (exercise) stress is too much?
There are serval factors that can contribute to how much stress a person can handle:
- Previous exercise experience and current fitness status (with exercise stress)
Someone who is generally happy with good stress coping mechanisms who sleeps seven or more hours a night and eats healthy foods will be able to tolerate more stress than someone who is fighting a chronic disease or someone who lives off takesout, coffee, and five hours of sleep each night.
The bottom line is if you take care of your body and your mind you can workout harder and more often getting increased benefit from exercise.
If, on the other hand, you’re a stress ball of unhealthy habits, you might want to address some of those first before jumping headfirst into a tough exercise routine or increasing your current training volume or intensity.
I usually recommend that people new to high-intensity exercise like Muay Thai, strength training, and HIIT (high intensity interval training), start off training 2-3 times a week. More than that can add too much stress to the body.
If you want to train more than that work up to it slowly over 3-4 months as you decrease other stressors in your life that might derail your training.
What makes exercise a magic stress reduction technique is that it will help you establish other habits in your life that aid overall wellness and lower stress, like better sleep, hydration, nutrition, and productivity.
SIGNS OF EXERCISE STRESS
How do you know if you’re exercising too much? Chances are if you have several lifestyle stressors in your world, you are not “overtrained”, you’re more likely “under-recovered”, but nevertheless you’ll want to watch out for some of these tell-tale signs of over-training.
- Lack of interest in activities you used to love
- Insomnia or restless sleep
- Mood swings or agitation
- Increased perceived effort during workouts (without increased intensity)
- Chronic or nagging injuries
- Lowered appetite
- Obsession with not skipping workouts (exercise addiction)
- Performance decrease with an increase in training
One of these might not mean you are overtraining, but if two or more rings true, you will want to evaluate your lifestyle and training habits.
EXERCISE BENEFITS TRUMP RISK
Exercise is not the enemy. Financial pressure, concern for our future, working long hours, marital problems, emotional issues, and traumatic events are the main stress culprits today.
Exercise has many benefits when you respect that it is dose-dependent.
- Better memory and learning
- Lower risk for chronic disease
- A fun place to socialize (if you go to a community-based gym)
- Improved sleep
- Improved digestion
- Clearer skin
- Better sex life
- Becoming an all-around badass
So if the answer is to exercise for stress reduction, what can you do to ensure you are able to train regularly, get stronger, and challenge yourself to the fullest without any negative effects?
STRESS REDUCTION FOR ACTIVE HUMANS
There are many ways to reduce stress and thereby increase your tolerance to exercise. If you have a sport-specific or fitness goal, here are my top stress reduction tips:
- Sleep at least 7 hours a night, more if you can.
- Hydrate. Drinking enough water will improve muscle recovery, boost metabolism, clear your skin, and force you to take bathroom breaks from your office chair, which are more needed than you realize.
- Adjust training intensity and volume as needed. Workouts are most effective when balanced between technical and challenging, light and hard. Not every day is a PR (personal record) day, just like not every day should be a hard sparring day in Muay Thai. Your training should have elements of a thoughtful cycle of different intensity and volume waves.
- Increase physical recovery. Foam rolling, stretching, mobility, trigger point therapy, massage, chiropractic, and deep breaths are an essential part of any exerciser’s routine. Make sure you’ve got ninja mobility and recovery skills in your arsenal.
- Practice healthy stress reduction outside the gym. Here is where you can be creative. Do what suits you best! My favorites are reading, journaling, walking, talking to a friend, bubble baths, and of course, petting cats.
- Nourish and fuel your body for performance. You don’t have to get fancy with a measured and weighed “perfect” meal plan. Just don’t eat like a twelve-year-old wants to. Chances are you know the basics of proper nutrition. We all know eating veggies, getting adequate protein, controlling meal portions, and lowering our sugar intake is important. Nutrition is a part of stress reduction. A nourished body handles stress better than a nutrient-deprived one. Toss the deep-fried take out and eat something home-cooked that has the color green in it.
We can never rid ourselves of stress one hundred percent, but we can find ways to lower stress while we focus on getting stronger, learning new skills, and becoming bad-ass at the activities we love.