That's because exercise in itself is a stressor. "Exercise induces physiological stress, stress forces adaptations, and adaptations make you stronger," explains Matthew Stults-Kolehmainen, PhD, a clinical exercise physiologist at Yale New Haven Hospital.
On a cellular level, adding stress—whether it's via speed, intensity, or heavier weights—causes micro-tears in your muscles; during recovery, your immune system works to repair those tears, making your muscles stronger than before. "If you don't add stress, the body can't adapt, and you can't get stronger," adds Kristen Dieffenbach, PhD, associate professor of athletic coaching education at West Virginia University. On a hormonal level, she adds, stress causes your body to release the hormone cortisol, which puts your body in fight or flight mode and can make you more focused and boost your performance.
So stress—in small amounts, when it's limited, when you recover from it, and when you're able to cope with it—is a good thing. "Stress becomes bad when we violate those rules," says Stults-Kolehmainen.
Shocker: The unique stressors of 2020 are breaking all of those rules. "We don't feel like we're personally in control, we don't feel like our communities are in control, and we don't feel like the country is in control," says Stults-Kolehmainen. "Anything that feels uncontrollable is going to make stress much worse." And when your body is in a prolonged state of high-alert due to non-stop cortisol release, it sucks up a ton of your energy.
However you break a sweat, you're going to feel the effects of not just the physiological stress of the workout but the mental stress you're dealing with day-to-day too, says Dieffenbach. Research published in the journal Sports Medicine shows that psychological stress jacks up the amount of perceived effort you experience during a workout, and a study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (co-authored by Stults-Kolehmainen) found that prolonged mental stress increased the amount of fatigue and soreness by up to four days post-workout. "You should come home from a workout physically drained and mentally refreshed," says Dieffenbach. If you feel drained on both fronts, you're likely over-stressing your body.
Then there's your perception of that stress. "Exercise can be stress relief, but the rub comes when you start to think 'I have to exercise to get my stress relief' or 'I have to exercise this way for it to count,'" says Dieffenbach. On top of everything else, "we're adding this pressure to achieve or perform," she explains, and setting "shoulds" and "musts" might not make sense given what else is going on in your life. Exercise can become both a physiological stressor and a mental one, which is not the goal of anyone.
The major problem here? When you're constantly in this kind of high-stress state, your body isn't able to recover as quickly as usual. Let's say you have a hard workout on Monday; you may have been able to go hard again the next day or on Wednesday in the past, but if you're overly stressed, your body might not be ready to work out hard again until Thursday. If you do another high-intensity workout on Tuesday or Wednesday without giving your body the extra recovery time it needs, "you're causing more micro-damage, which warrants more recovery, and if you don't allow yourself proper recovery from that second session as well, you're creating a downward spiral," Stults-Kolehmainen explains.
It's that cumulative buildup of stress and fatigue that can spell disaster. What you're trying to avoid is overtraining and burnout. While overtraining is considered to be mainly a physical imbalance between exercise and rest, burnout is a sense of insurmountable fatigue. "It's generally a combination of life stressors coupled with higher-intensity training that causes those issues," says Dieffenbach. And once you're on the slippery slope towards burnout, you can start to experience not just a decrease in performance and delayed recovery, but symptoms like insomnia, loss of appetite, apathy, and mood changes.
Can you still use exercise to ease the stress of everything going on right now? A new study from Cambridge University on exercise and mental health from the early stages of lockdown suggests that the answer is yes. But "it's about learning to recognize the difference between 'I'm challenging myself' and 'I'm dragging myself into the ground,'" says Stults-Kolehmainen.
Before you work out, Dieffenbach says, check in with your stress levels: Are you relaxed enough to get a quality workout from high-intensity exercise? Or are you so tense that you're going to be fighting yourself to get the outcome you want? If you're feeling run down, think about alternatives to your go-to workout, she says. If you're a runner, go for a walk. If you love spin classes, go for a chill bike ride.
If you're already breaking a sweat, how your body reacts in the first 10 to 15 minutes of a workout is a good signal of how that workout is going to feel, says Stults-Kolehmainen. "Think about warming up—that type of intensity should be relaxing," he says. "If you're not sure whether you're under too much stress, start by extending your 10-minute warm-up to 15 or 20 minutes. If at the end of that 15 or 20 minutes you feel better, you get the green light to proceed with your workout. If you still feel bad, continue at warm-up intensity. And if you feel worse, call it a day and do some stretching or light yoga instead."
In a high-stress state of living, you want to listen to your body and give yourself permission to use exercise for good as opposed to being driven by whatever requirements you've placed around it, says Dieffenbach. "You've got to be a little more forgiving and know that your workouts are going to be constantly ebbing and flowing," she explains. "We're not going for A-game right now; we're going for maintaining until we can get back to our A-game."
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