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In this article we explain how stress can negatively impact your pursuit to get fitter, stronger or perform better, what stress is and how it can be managed effectively to help you get the most of your workouts and reduce stress in your daily life.

Stress: An Often Overlooked Factor

I remember being told there are only two certainties in life: you will die and you will pay taxes. To this day, I feel there's a third certainty that has yet to be universally recognised. No matter where you live, what gender you are, and how much money you make, you will experience stress. Ironically, it will probably be because of either of the first two 'certainties’.

When I refer to stress it is important that I clarify what I mean. Stress, you see, can have many meanings, particularly in science. It can refer to the amount of force applied to a structure such as a building or even a muscle, known as 'mechanical stress’, or it can even mean the buildup of metabolic substances in the muscle in response to exercise, termed 'metabolic stress’.

I am, of course, instead referring to psychological stress, which is defined as a disturbance of the psychological process which can manifest behavioural or emotional responses, like freaking out (the response) when you’re running late for work (the stressor).

This stress can both act as a good or beneficial stimulus, known as 'eustress’, like the feeling you get when you've just won a match in a sport you're playing, or it can be detrimental, which is usually just known known as stress or anxiety.

Like many phenomena that affect the human mind, stress not only has an affect on someone's behaviour or emotions, but also has many physical effects, especially when this stress or anxiety, the bad kind, is constantly elevated, when, for example, you have a large project due in three weeks and you haven't done a thing for it yet, or they’re letting people go in your job and you’re not sure how secure your professional circumstances are.

That long-term stress, known as chronic stress, has been shown to have a detrimental effect on the immune system — reducing the activity of immune cells and increasing not only susceptibility to infection, but also the length of time needed to recover from an illness.

The effects don’t stop there either. Cortisol is a hormone associated with stress. A hormone is basically a chemical messenger the body uses to communicate with itself, and cortisol has shown to be a potential player in the development of depression by disrupting certain chemical processes in the brain related to brain matter growth and development. There is also some evidence of high stress levels putting someone at a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes, and there’s no mystery surrounding the link between stress and high blood pressure, which can negatively affect heart health.

So, with all the negative effects that stress can have on the overall health of a person, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it can also negatively impact how you adapt to exercise, reducing the effectiveness of your workout and even possibly reducing the amount of work you could potentially do in each session. In fact, there’s already been studies showing that injury risk increases, aerobic work capacity decreases and that the amount of strength gained from weight training is decreased in people with high levels of stress compared to relatively less stressed individuals.

Couple this with the fact that cortisol, a hormone closely linked with stress, also seems to enhance fat storage and you’ve got a lot of good reasons to start managing stress if you’re an athlete or even a recreational exerciser just trying to get into better shape as it can help increase how much strength you gain, fat you lose or even how hard you can push yourself during cardio. So, that just leaves us with the question of how.

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