Five Things You Need to Know About Stress and Your Fitness

One of my clients, who has been seeing excellent, steady results in fat loss and fitness over the last several months, got hit with a giant stress bomb recently. I don't need to go into details, but it's a family health issue that has turned her day to day life upside down.

When stress happens, here are some things you need to know.


1. To your body, stress is all the same.

It doesn't matter if it's emotional/psychological stress from a bad relationship, high-paced job or family emergency, or physical stress like not getting enough sleep, physical trauma, poor nutrition or being ill. To your body, all of these different kinds of stress are basically the same.

I strongly suggest reading "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers" by Dr. Sapolsky. He explains A LOT about stress in this book.


2. You're more likely to be stiff and prone to injury.

Are you feeling a little... er... tense? You might need to adjust your training for a little while.

Are you feeling a little... er... tense? You might need to adjust your training for a little while.

In my experience, when you're stressed, your body is more likely to be stiff and tight, and you're more likely to injure yourself. In fact, the same client I mentioned at the beginning of this article started having back pain recently - since the stressful incident began. It wasn't induced by an injury or poor form. It just popped up out of the blue. 

When we talked about it, this client told me that she'd had similar pain many years ago during an equally stressful time. 

What's the mechanism behind this? Probably a combination of many things. 

But researchers do know that there is a strong connection between mental state, stress and the physical body. Candace Pert wrote about this in her book "The Molecules of Emotion". Although it was written back in 1999, and there's been a lot of research since, it's still a great read to explore the mind-body connection.

What does this mean for you? If you've been really stressed, reduce the loads you're handling in training, focus on quality of execution, and spend extra time on mobility training if needed. The first thing I did for this client when I saw her after this stress started was cut the workouts back slightly and find lower risk exercises that would still provide a challenge.

3. You're less able to recover from hard training.

Our bodies can only handle so much stress at one time before we get overloaded. When it comes to training, our workouts inflict stress on our body. If it's in the right dose, then we can recover and adapt to it. That's w we improve.

However, if the stress is too high (I'm talking about total life stress: from training and life outside the gym), the we won't be able to fully recover. It doesn't happen in one workout, but this is how we get worn down over time. In reality, this usually affects serious athletes (whose training inflicts a ton of stress on the body) more than recreational exercisers (whose training is less intense and less frequent). 

That being said, it's not just advance athletes who need adjustments during periods of high stress. If you're getting worn down, drop the volume of training (total number of reps and sets), and do what you can to remove stress from areas in your life that you can control (i.e. eat better, get more sleep, etc).



4. If I'm stressed, should I even work out?

Yes! But manage expectations and back off a bit. If stress is short-term or very moderate (i.e. one bad day at the office), it's no big deal. But if it's a massive weight on your shoulders with no sign of letting up, then take it easy. Exercise is therapeutic, physically and mentally. It gives us energy and makes us feel better. Being sedentary isn't going to help you any. The idea is to not blow your brains out in the gym day after day if your body needs to recuperate.

As I mentioned, if you're newer to exercise, you probably don't need to worry about this compared to someone who's been working out consistently for a decade.

For example, suppose we have two people of similar age and weight: one is a beginner who's best squat is 75lbs, and one is an fairly advanced trainee whose best squat is 475lbs. The beginner won't need to adjust training much because 75lbs - as hard as it feels to the beginner lifter (and it will feel like the absolute limit of what they can do) - just can't put that much stress on your body compared to lifting 475lbs. Chances are, 75lbs just isn't enough total loading to really beat you down too much. 

The advanced lifter, on the other hand, would want to make significant changes to his/her training plan and monitor recovery, because even lifting 400lbs (about 85% of their max) still has the ability to inflict a lot of stress to the body, and the risk is inherently much higher (at 400lbs vs 75lbs) if something does go wrong.

5. What about food?

This is a BIG one - especially for those seeking fat loss! There's nothing worse than being stressed out of your mind, and feeling helpless about the extra fat that you're gaining. 

Let's be real: many people who have difficulty losing and maintaining weight tend to turn to food for comfort. When you're gripped by stress, it's easy to eat like shit.

The habits that lead to nutrition success (food prep, planning, awareness) tend to feel more tedious and draining.  Meanwhile, the call of sugary treats to provide a sweet little pick-me-up grows stronger. It's a double whammy.

What to do?

It's not easy. When we're stressed, motivation will decrease. So will energy levels and mood. You've got to expect this and see it for what it is: a moderate blip on your long-term journey - one that requires a bit of fancy footwork to navigate. 

Remember that you don't have to be perfect, you just need to be good enough. Maybe you shift your goals into "maintenance phase" vs. a "making progress" phase for the time being, or maybe you take a financial hit and hire a meal delivery service to make life easier for a while.

Either way, stop, think and come up with a plan that you're 100% confident you can execute, even while dealing with your stress. Then make it as low maintenance and easy to follow through on as possible.  


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