Is stress sabotaging your fitness goals?


Posted by Joanna Meade

Nov 26, 2014

OperationPeacemode.jpg Yoga and hiking are two great stress relievers. Here I am doing a little of both!

You may have noticed it has been some time since my last post. Truth be told, I have been recovering from a bit of a vulnerability hangover. Additionally, the past six months have seen a marked increase in my stress levels. A lot of things have happened - I went back to school, navigated a breakup, and experienced changes in my workplace. I am working long hours, worried about finances, routinely sleeping less than 8 hours a night, with little free time for meditation, and perhaps most stressful of all, I am dating again. Heaven help me!

Taking a hard look at my personal stressors this month inspired me to share with you how stress can sabotage your fitness goals. During training for the A.L.I.V.E. program I learned much about how stress affects our bodies. A.L.I.V.E. stands for aggressive lifestyle intervention through variable exercise. If you are seeking a serious lifestyle intervention, I highly recommend clicking on the link above to learn more. Remember, fitness is more than looking good naked, it is a lifestyle choice, and it has to be sustainable one.

The stress response and the relaxation response

Firstly, not all stress is bad. Stress can be defined as the brain’s response to any demand. Meaning: stress is an inescapable part of life. The hypothalamus is the command center of the brain. It commands the autonomic nervous system, which is in charge of involuntary actions in the body (e.g., breathing, heart rate, etc.). The autonomic nervous system has two branches; the sympathetic branch which functions like the gas pedal in a car, and the parasympathetic branch, which functions like the brakes.

During stressful events, the hypothalamus tells our body to step on the gas triggering a cascade of hormones that prepare us to face a threat or flee to safety. You may have heard it described as the “fight or flight” response. Your pulse rises, you breathe faster, and your muscles tense. Your brain activity increases and requires more oxygen. It is life-saving in certain situations. In the short term, it even boosts the immune system.

When the stress response is stimulated all functions that are not essential to survival in the face of a threat are put on hold, such as digestion and bowel movements. Once the threat is removed, the relaxation response, or the “brakes”, slow things down so that normal functions can resume.

Most of the threats modern humans face are not something that we can fight or flee. Routine stress related to the pressures of work, family, and other daily responsibilities is constant. Therefore, onset of symptoms from chronic stress often go unnoticed. It is as if your body has become a car without brakes. Over time, chronic stress can lead to a variety of serious physical and mental health risks. Individuals experiencing prolonged, chronic, stress are more likely to experience heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, and anxiety.

The good news

Fortunately, there are a number of things you can do to lower your stress levels and re-engage the “brakes”. Exercise, adequate sleep, proper nutrition, meditation, socializing, and therapy are all proven stress reducers. The following tips are a great place to start when you feel like stress is taking the wheel.

Exercise: During periods of high stress, you must prioritize your health. A poor diet, no sleep, and lack of exercise only increase the demands on your body. When you can’t avoid certain stressors, you have to reduce the stress that is within your control. Diet, sleep, and exercise are firmly within your control. Exercise for a minimum of 30 minutes each day. It does not have to be intense activity. Taking a walk during your lunch break is a great starting point. Certain exercises can even serve as a form of meditation allowing you to focus on the task at hand and not the stressors that are getting you down. Additionally, exercise fires up your stress response allowing you to simulate fighting or fleeing. During recovery from exercise there is a coordinated activation of the relaxation response and withdrawal of the stress response, which helps lower your heart rate and breathing. In essence, the post-exercise recovery period helps restore the “breaks”.

Diet: To continue the car analogy, exercise is your foot on the pedals, and diet is the fuel in your tank. If you don’t have enough fuel, or the right type, no matter how hard you press the gas pedal, you aren’t going to go very far. Eat regular well-balanced meals, and avoid a lot of sugar and caffeine. Balanced meals will help you maintain your blood sugar levels and subsequently your hormones. Eating an unbalanced diet contributes to a sluggish feeling and diminishes awareness. After consuming a meal high in sugar, your blood sugar rises resulting in increased energy. Twenty to thirty minutes later your energy level drops, because you have little fuel left in your body. Enjoying a beer or a glass of wine after a stressful day can be relaxing for some. However, excessive intake of alcohol spikes your blood sugar, diminishes your sleep quality, and may develop into an unhealthy coping mechanism. Alcohol can leave you more taxed than relaxed.

Sleep: Rest is essential when stress is taking a toll on your body. Set a time that you have to go to bed and stick to it. Turn down the lights and avoid using your phone 30 minutes before bedtime to give your body the signal it is time to sleep. Turn off the television or radio before falling asleep as the noise and light can interrupt your sleep. Improve your quality of sleep with an eye mask, ear plugs, or a sound machine. Natural sleep aids can help you wind down on those nights when your brain won’t let you rest; however, if you are exercising regularly, and eating balanced meals, your body will naturally produce the appropriate amounts of hormones necessary to drift off to dreamland in a timely manner making supplements unnecessary.

Meditation: Stress management starts with identifying the sources of stress in your life, which is sometimes easier said than done. Meditation occurs in different forms for different folks - exercise and journaling can serve as forms of meditation for the multitaskers out there. Anyone can find two minutes a day to sit in silence and focus your attention on your breath and nothing else. Think of meditation as exercise for your brain. The more you do it, the easier it gets to restore that focus and calmness in stressful situations. Developing mindfulness and clarity through meditation is a great way to help you see the habits, attitudes, excuses, and coping mechanisms that could be contributing to your stress levels.

Socialize: Remember that saying, laughter is the best medicine? When it comes to stress it rings true. Like exercise, a good belly laugh stimulates the stress response and when it is over, the relaxation response takes over. Talking uses many of the same muscles as laughing, and it is like free therapy. Setting time aside to socialize is critical for managing your stress. If you feel like you don’t have time for socializing, remind yourself that laughter truly is a form of medicine.

Therapy: When you have tried all of the aforementioned, and nothing seems to help, a good therapist can facilitate a clearer picture and a road map to address your stress. This study is an example of how treating stress with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can impact cardiovascular disease. Seek out a qualified cognitive behavioral therapist that will work with you in a very structured manner over a limited number of sessions. CBT helps you become aware of inaccurate or negative thinking, so you can view challenging situations more clearly and respond to them in a more effective way.

Personally, writing this post is one way I have developed to address my own stress. Our personal training staff will work with you to help reduce your stress levels and improve your overall fitness through appropriate exercise instruction, diet advice, and other healthy lifestyle inventions. We are here to help! I am proof that we take our own advice and it works. Until next time friends, namaste.

Joanna Meade (view bio) is a NSCA Certified Personal Trainer at the Downtown Athletic Club. She can be reached at Merritt Athletic Clubs Downtown Club at 410-332-0906.

Topics: Personal Training