These days it seems that everyone is stressed out. You overhear it in conversations, you see it on people’s faces, and you most likely feel it in your own life. Some even go so far as to wear their stress as a badge of honor! All of this is causing some serious issues when it comes to our health. While we can’t necessarily prove it, stress may be at the root of major chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s disease. That’s why it is so important that we all recognize how it affects our body and how to avoid it as much as possible. Without proper awareness, we could be opening ourselves up to serious consequences to our health and even our fitness pursuits.
Sources of Stress
On the surface, it may seem like we don’t have much to complain about. We have insulated ourselves from the dangers we faced back when we were hunter gatherers. We’ve built cozy shelters for ourselves, have easy access to food, and rarely encounter any animals that want to eat us. However, for all that we’ve done to solve those major hurdles, we’ve created a host of other avenues through which stress can affect us.
Everything from our job, daily commute, relationships, moving to a new home, and even social media can be a major stressor. What is interesting is that these stressors impact our lives in much the same way that an attack from a wild animal would have done for our ancestors. We are hard wired to have the same alarm reaction and fight or flight response no matter what kind of stress/danger we encounter.
While we are resilient in that we have mechanisms in place to deal with stress, there is a limit . The constant barrage most people encounter today is much different than what we felt as early humans. We are constantly reacting to stimuli in our environment. Consequently, our nervous system feels as though it is being chased by a lion all day with little to no break in between. This wears us down and eventually begins wreaking havoc on our mind and body.
How it Impacts Your Health
The natural response to stress can be explained quite easily. We encounter a stressor which triggers an “alarm reaction” in the brain. This causes the release of certain stress hormones which act to make us more resilient . Then, when the stressor is gone, we are left with more resiliency just in case we encounter another stressor somewhere down the road. That period of time where the stressor is removed is called the recovery period and is absolutely vital to the stress adaptation .
Unfortunately, most people rarely experience the recovery period. Chronic stress with no recovery period actually diminishes your resiliency over time. Once that resiliency begins to wane, our health takes a big hit. Being exposed to stress hormones in short bursts is helpful to the body. However, chronic exposure (as is the case with chronic stress) will cause damage to our brain and body . These stress hormones eventually cause an increase in inflammation and disrupt our normal enzyme and genetic activity. As a result, insulin resistance, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol begin to develop. Eventually, these issues can turn into serious health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
In order to avoid the damaging effects of stress we have to evaluate our lives objectively. Being aware of our stressors and implementing ways to avoid or limit them is extremely important. Additionally, we need to do everything we can in order to support our bodies ability to deal with stress. Proper nutrition, adequate sleep, spending time with family and friends, and meditation are all great ways to fortify our body against stress. Of course, our favorite stress relief technique would probably be working out. However, stress can creep its way into the gym as well. And unless we deal with it appropriately, our fitness and performance will take a hit as well.
How it Impacts Your Fitness
The impact that stress has on our health can be hard to recognize due to the long incubation period. It can take years for serious issues to arise as a result of chronic stress. But that isn’t the case when it comes to our fitness. The nervous system is very sensitive when it comes to pushing our bodies in the gym. Just a little bit too much stress and our nervous system will purposefully shut down our ability to work hard . Consequently, diminished strength, aches and pains, and low motivation to train can show up within days of becoming overstressed.
Now sometimes this overstressed state is actually what we need in the gym. We will often push ourselves beyond our limits in the gym in order to adapt. Hitting it hard for a few weeks and then taking a week to rest up can have great results for our performance. This is the same concept that we discussed earlier by which a stressor is followed by a recovery period thus resulting in greater resiliency. However, it is important that the stressor comes from our training and not from other areas of our lives. Otherwise, our nervous system will step in to protect us and actually decrease our work capacity rather than increase it .
Now of course, we are going to encounter stress outside of our training sessions. So the trick is learning to manage our stressors intelligently in order to keep progressing in the gym. This can be accomplished by tracking our stress and training load over time. Having this data will allow you to adapt your training in a way that accommodates your stress levels rather than adding to them. This might mean taking a step back even on days where you feel like kicking butt in the gym. But it isn’t always about how hard you can work but rather how hard you should work.
We can go many years enduring our stress before we begin to suffer the toll it takes on our body. This makes it particularly dangerous as it works silently to dismantle our health from the inside. But proper awareness of our mind, body, and spirit can help us objectively analyze how stressors might be impacting our lives. Being aware of stressful events and doing what we can to mitigate their effects will go a long way in keeping us healthy.
The same goes for how we go about our training. Working smartly within our training program can actually enhance our resiliency to stress. However, stubborn pride and ego dirven training will often lead to burn out and poor fitness outcomes. Therefore, keeping the stress at bay is crucial if we want to continue leading a healthy and productive life both inside and outside of the gym.
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