Then it hit me: Working out is a stressor. "It's good to understand that movement is in itself another stressor," says Emily Schromm, fitness expert who's co-leading the upcoming Wanderlust Wellest Challenge. "It sounds like stress relief in your head, but if you want your body to change and get stronger, you have to break down muscle so that it can build back up—so it stresses the body to adapt."
I mean, it's true that working out doesn't exactly relax your body—biologically, it does the complete opposite. But it's the endorphins and sense of accomplishment that make you feel so great afterwards—not what you did to your muscles. Cortisol—AKA the stress hormone—obviously spikes when you're experiencing lifestyle stressors... but it's circulating throughout the body during an intense workout, too.
"If a person's going to work out intensely all the time to release stress, that can often backfire," says Schromm. "You can over-stress the body this way. A body in excess stress will not get stronger—it's simply trying to survive." In fact, we called that this year would see a huge rise in the number of cortisol-conscious fitness options out there, and the rise of recovery and kind-to-the-body stretch-forward classes stand as proof.
So if you're scratching your head as far as what to do to de-stress when HIIT is your preferred release, know that it doesn't mean you can't workout. But Schromm says it's healthier to just take things a little lighter. "When life is really stressful, you have less of an ability to handle something like a very hard, intense workout," she says. "So it would be better to do something slower, like go on a hike or do slow, steady weight-training moves." FWIW: There is growing research that resistance training can boost your mood just as well as cardio.
So, while you might be tempted to burn through the stress with an intense run or set of burpees, recognize that you can sweat it out without stressing your body out in the process, too.
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