Recently, I had a reader reach out and ask me about exercise and stress;
Hi Suzie, I’ve heard my whole life that exercise is a great way to reduce stress. But your last post had me wondering if I should even bother exercising when I’m stressed out. How can I know if exercising that day will make me feel better, or make me feel even worse?
This is a great question, and I believe it’s an important idea to clarify. The quick answer, one that applies to just about everything in life, is that it depends. Determining how your body will react to stressors (and then giving it what it needs) is a subjective process, and it takes trial and error to get it right. However, researchers have identified a few trends in how physical fitness and stress interact with each other, and I think they’re worth understanding.
Exercise as a Stress Reliever
First of all, you’re right — exercise is commonly touted as a stress reliever, and for good reason. If you’re the type of person that goes for a long run to clear your head, or hits the weights after a long day at the office, you’ve figured out that exercise works wonders for your mood. You probably wouldn’t do that consistently if it didn’t make you feel good.
Researchers have shown that aerobic exercise (which is usually known as “cardio”) reduces the reactivity of the cardiovascular system. That is, it helps the heart rate recover quicker in response to stress. Interestingly, one study showed that aerobically-fit subjects also had an easier time slowing their heart rate down in response to a psychological stressor. So, put simply, doing cardio helps your heart get better at responding to stress, regardless of whether that stress is physical or emotional.
On a basic level, exercise itself is a stressor to the body in that it places a challenging demand on your body’s resources (both physiological and psychological). However, through repeated exposure, your body adapts to that stressor and becomes stronger. Over time, a level of volume or intensity that once left you exhausted is no longer demanding — and this is what happens when you get “fit.”
But it’s not always that simple. Because exercise is “stressful” to your body, the law of diminishing returns kicks in at some point. Too much stress — regardless of whether that stress comes from exercise, work-related woes, or both — is not healthy for your body. Let’s take a look at how your body responds to too much physical stress.
Exercise as a Stress Contributor
Exercise will become a stress contributor if a) the volume or intensity is too much for your body to recover from, or b) your life is too stressful to handle exercise as an additional stressor.
What does this mean, realistically?
Recovery is the most crucial aspect of any exercise regimen. Your body won’t adapt to the demands of exercise unless you also give it a chance to recover.
That means if your life is so crazy that it doesn’t even allow you the opportunity to slow down — to deregulate — exercise is probably not the best thing to add to it. Researchers have shown that recovery is impaired when you’re stressed, which means you may not be able to deregulate even if you’re doing all of the right things — drinking water, sleeping eight hours, eating vegetables, etc.
I know, that goes contrary to everything you’ve heard on the internet. You’ve heard exercise is good, period. No excuses.
But let’s say you’re overworked, tired, and anxious because you have 25 hours’ worth of tasks and only 24 hours in the day (if you don’t offer yourself the luxury of sleeping). You’re responsible for showing up at a 9-to-5 office job, managing your kids’ sports schedules, playing taxi driver, cooking healthy meals every night, doing all the shopping, and keeping the house clean. And that’s just the normal baseline level of stuff; it doesn’t include any extraneous activities like getting your oil changed or attending PTA meetings.
You read on some blog that getting a workout in every day will help you sleep better and make you less irritable with your children. Sounds like a win-win! So you start going to boot camp classes at your local gym. You push yourself through a workout that is positively miserable at the moment, but guess what! You feel exhilarated and refreshed for the rest of the day.
That night, you can’t sleep. You wake up at 2 am and can’t fall back asleep. Your heart feels like it’s beating out of your chest, and your muscles are so sore you can barely rollover. Finally, around 3:30, you make yourself a cup of coffee and prepare for another jam-packed day.
Maybe you decide not to go back to boot camp that day, just to let the soreness dissipate. But the day after, you’re back and ready to die by burpees.
In this case, exercise is probably doing you more harm than good. It’s amping up your nervous system, which is already on high-alert, refusing to let it calm down.
Your workouts don’t even have to be that intense for this to happen, though. It has little to do with a specific volume or intensity or type of exercise you choose, and everything to do with how stressed out you are before you add exercise into the mix.
How to Move Your Body if You’re Stressed
Now, I’m not saying you should just glue yourself to the couch for the next fifty years. Exercise can work wonders for your mental and physical health if you can do it in a way that doesn’t cause your nervous system to short out.
Exercise is fine to use as a stress reliever IF — and only if — it doesn’t compromise your ability to recover. Any exercise routine that beats your body down without giving it a chance to rise back up is not an effective method of stress relief.
Given enough time, any exercise program that does not allow for adequate recovery will cause physiological and psychological damage. This effect is magnified and accelerated with high-intensity exercise programs (which is what many people gravitate towards if they’re using exercise as stress relief). That can become a vicious cycle that only ends if one of those stressors (exercise intensity or life stress) is removed or reduced.
The solution is to make sure that physical movement — whatever form you choose — is rejuvenating and refreshing.
That’s why I typically recommend physical activity rather than exercise — at least at first — to people who are chronically stressed out.
The terms physical activity and exercise are typically used interchangeably, but they are actually two different things. Physical activity is any sort of bodily movement, which can encompass things like gardening, walking, or playing with your dog. Exercise, on the other hand, is a movement structured with the goal of getting fitter — running frequently to improve your 10k time, or doing squats and bicep curls in the gym.
Because the intensity level of physical activity is usually lower than what you experience in structured exercise, it doesn’t demand as much from your body in the moment, and it’s also easier to recover from. Most of the health benefits that come with bodily movement are accessible to you this way, without an increase in stress.
Additionally, for many people, going for a bike ride with their kids is easier to fit in their schedule, not to mention more enjoyable than trying to figure out how to work the leg press machine at the gym.
So, in summary, my suggestion to this reader question is this: start with physical activity, and when in doubt, start small. Small amounts of gentle physical activity will likely be nothing but beneficial, so I would recommend taking a day off of the gym and going for a walk instead.
Pay close attention to how your body feels later that day, that night, and the next day. If you’re feeling good and want to add a little more, go ahead and try it. But build up slowly to give your body plenty of time to adjust.
Exercise won’t make you healthier if your body is already struggling to keep up with its own normal day-to-day processes. But moving in a way that helps you feel relaxed, connected with your body, and gentle towards yourself will transform you.
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Should I Exercise When I’m Stressed?
What to look out for when you’re starting out.
Recently, I had a reader reach out and ask me about exercise and stress;