Exercise is a great way of managing stress, but what happens when your workouts cause more harm than good? Experts explain how to train hard without getting stressed.
Chances are, you’ve either heard of the term ‘runners high’ or have experienced it: the moment during or after running when the brain is flooded with stress-busting, feel-good neurotransmitters known as endorphins. “Structurally similar to morphine, endorphins are the body’s natural painkillers and because they are linked to the brain’s reward system, they leave us feeling euphoric too’ explains Dr Sophie Shotter of Illuminate Skin & Wellness Clinic.
This same euphoria that applies to multiple forms of exercise – alongside a major energy boost – is enough motivation to drag us away from our desks or off the sofa to get a workout in. But what happens when your workout plan puts stress on your body and mind?
After all, we’re not all fitness instructors – so how are we to know what types of training we should be doing and when? Now that we’re back in lockdown and don’t have access to our usual PTs and gym classes, the pressure falls on us to devise our own fitness plan. Not to mention how stressful it can be to just find the time to fit in a workout on a busy day.
We asked experts to share the best way to manage your training in order to reduce stress. But first, let’s take a look at how stress impacts our body.
Good stress vs bad stress
When we’re emotionally or physically stressed, this increases the production cortisol (aka the stress hormone) – which is one of the most important hormones that we produce. “Released in a particular pattern throughout the day, this hormone is absolutely crucial for a healthy body - as it regulates blood sugar, blood pressure and metabolism, boosts memory, and can positively affect your sleep quality and sex drive,” shares Shotter.
While stress in small doses is not actually a bad thing, our bodies are not equipped to deal with chronic stress – as we “have yet to genetically evolve past the Palaeolithic age,” adds Shotter. The result of this inability to adapt to the stress of modern living has left many of us with cortisol imbalances, “that are further exacerbated by workout plans packed with endurance exercises such as long runs, and cycling sessions, or high-intensity cardio workouts that last longer than 45 minutes,” explains Buz Roberts, owner of F45 Ealing.
Engaging in daily full-throttle workouts disrupts the natural fluctuation of your cortisol levels and leaves them cranked up on high, which you’ll find will have far reaching effects on your body and mind. “High blood pressure, osteoporosis, mood swings, difficulty sleeping, short-term memory loss, menstrual cycle disturbances, depression and anxiety could ensue,” says Shotter.
This doesn’t mean that if you’re going through a stressful period or lead a busy life that you should ditch working out altogether. But it might be time to rethink how you go about chasing your endorphin high.
Here’s how to create a stress-busting workout plan:
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Sync your cortisol levels
“Cortisol levels follow a circadian rhythm (often referred to as our body clock) – peaking in the morning and dropping to its lowest point around midnight,” explains Shotter. She advises that you sync your workouts to this rhythm, by training first thing in the day rather than in the evening – especially if long endurance sessions are your jam. This avoids any unnaturally long cortisol spikes and helps to keep levels where they should be.
Ditch the Data
From bands and watches, to apps and cardio monitors, there’s a plethora of ways to track and analyse your workouts. In terms of progression and goal setting, this digital feedback can be a blessing – but it can also lead to stress when we become obsessed with the numbers. Like all things in life, balance is key.
“When you are acutely focused on the numbers, you may find that you are pushing yourself too far – which leads to overly stressing the body and can often result in injury too. Plus, the anxiety that number crunching creates can dampened your post-workout buzz if you don’t hit those numerical goals,” says Roberts.
If you start to feel that you’re getting too fixated on the data, then go old-school and ditch the tech for a while. Instead, focus on how you feel during your workouts and adjust your output accordingly.
A study by the University of East Anglia found that exposure to green spaces has wide ranging health benefits that include the reduction of cortisol levels – and rather excitingly – an improvement in self-esteem.
While another study by the Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry, found that there are a host of mental and physical benefits to be had when you exercise in a natural environment.
Try incorporating outdoor training sessions, such as long walks or runs into your programme to keep stress at bay. Or, take a skipping rope outside for another way to get your heart rate up while taking in some fresh air.
You’re probably well-versed in the stress-busting benefits of yoga. If you are at a particularly stressful point in your life, Shotter believes you should swap some of your cardio-based HIIT sessions for slow yoga sessions instead.
“It’s a great way to aid recovery, and the deep breathing techniques, flows and inversions have been shown to keep the brain calm, lower cortisol and relax your body too,” adds Shotter.
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Take a break
Burnout is real, and it’s not just mental – it can be physical too, which is why rest days are so important.
“You don’t have to do absolutely nothing on these recovery days – light stretching, mobility exercises or a gentle stroll outside won’t overly tax the body, but check in with yourself to see if you are actually in the mood or if you have the energy.
“If you have to force yourself to be active on your rest day, then don’t bother. There’s no shame in staying in and binge-watching Netflix or getting stuck into a good book,” shares Roberts.
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