The Silent Saboteur In Your Fitness Program – Let’s Talk About Stress Baby!

We all know that stress is bad for us – as in REALLY bad. Stress has been proven to be the culprit behind all manner of ailments, both physical and mental. With the obvious connection between body and mind, we’re going to take a look at the effects stress has on your fitness performance.

So first of all, what exactly IS stress anyway?

First of all, let’s get to know the enemy. We throw the word “stress” or “stressed” around a lot. We’re all “stressed out”, know a “stress case” or “just can’t handle all the !#@$ stress in our lives!” But what exactly is this mythical creature that seems to have such control over us? Simply put, stress is your body’s way of responding to the demand placed upon it (or the mind).

Knowing that, it’s not a big jump to realize that stress isn’t only caused by bad things in our lives – like stress at work. It can also be caused by things that we consider to be good – even great. A first date, planning a trip or wedding, even picking where to go for dinner can all create a level of stress. and these aren’t even the crappy things like work deadlines or a car breaking down! When we experience a situation that the mind perceives as stressful – good or bad – our brains react by releasing a cocktail of chemicals into our bodies.

This cocktail includes chemicals like: Adrenaline, Cortisol, Glucocorticoids, Ghrelin, Catecholamines, Growth Hormone, Prolactin, Vasopressin, Gonadotropins, Thyroid Hormones and Insulin (I prefer mine shaken, not stirred). But hey, you didn’t order this drink, why is your body suddenly trying to roofie you with all of these mind and body altering substances? As with many things physical, the answer is is evolution.

stressed out caveman

Back when we were cave people roaming the land with sticks and loincloths, when a big cat roared at you unseen in the night, your body would pump you full of those chemicals to give you an increase in energy so that you could adapt to the circumstance. In that light, stress effects were pretty useful. Because we’ve spent a MUCH greater period of time roaming the planet in an environment where “fight or flight” proved a useful survival tactic, our bodies have hung onto these mechanisms. Unfortunately, our brains don’t fully evolve in just a couple of centuries. Doing away with a useful survival mechanic just doesn’t make sense to it. In the ‘new’ world that our brains find themselves in, it releases these chemicals whenever it perceives a threat or difficult situation in an effort to help us adapt.

OK, so why does my brain think that these hormones and chemicals are a good idea – what do they do for me?

  • Adrenaline
    This one you may be familiar with. It’s the big one that creates that “fight or flight” response. It causes organs in the body to release glucose into the blood stream creating a burst of energy, increases your heart rate, contracts blood vessels and opens up your air passageways allowing you to oxygenate your blood easier. This is the stuff that increases your ability to physically perform at a higher level than you may otherwise be able to.
  • Cortisol
    Cortisol affects most of the cells in your body causing MANY different outcomes. Cortisol can affect your blood sugar levels, metabolism, inflammation response, memory formation, water and salt balance and can impact your blood pressure. According to the Mayo Clinic:

“Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues.

Cortisol also curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with regions of your brain that control mood, motivation and fear. “

Fatty foods
  • Glucocorticoids
    These are corticosteroids that are involved in the metabolism of macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins and fats) and fight inflammation.
  • Ghrelin
    This little monster shows up unbidden when stress occurs over time (not the short term “run from the cat” variety of stress). It is called “the hunger hormone” because it normally is produced when the body needs food. It stimulates appetite, increases fat storage and increases your food intake (up to 30% according to some studies).
  • Catecholamines
    This one pulls double duty with adrenaline, it increases heart rate, blood pressure and blood glucose levels involved with the “fight or flight” response.
  • Growth Hormone
    This one’s a little funky. In physiological stress like lifting a weight for example – where there is literal physical stress placed on a muscle, there is an increase in growth hormone which can also enhance metabolism. However, in psychological stress, going to a job you hate, or prolonged mental fatigue for example, there is a decrease in growth hormone secretion. With decreased growth hormone, you can expect to see issues with your body’s ability to regulate its composition, body fluids, muscle and bone growth, sugar and fat metabolism, and possibly heart function.
  • Prolactin
    From my research, there is some gray area with this as to whether it increases or decreases due to stress, and what the significance of these changes are, but it is believed that these changes can impact your immune system and overall ability of your body to stay in homeostasis (stability) while adapting to change.
  • Vasopressin
    Impacts kidney function – specifically the ability to retain water and increases blood pressure.
  • Gonadotropins
    These hormones stimulate the activity of the gonads, and over time can impair reproductive function.
  • Thyroid Hormones
    Stress usually puts your thyroid function on the back burner. This means that your thyroid produces less of the hormones it usually secretes. The thyroid governs quite a bit in your body, including the body’s metabolic rate, heart and digestive function, muscle control, brain development, mood and bone maintenance. Which means that stress over time, puts these important aspects of your health on the back burner.
  • Insulin
    Insulin production may decrease during stress, which means that prolonged stress can really mess with your body’s ability to regulate your blood sugar.

When looked at individually, you can see how a short term reduction – or increase – of these chemicals might help you in a fight or flight scenario. Historically, stress was a shorter term issue: you needed to get away from that big cat in the dark. If the stress was longer term – something like “How am I going to find food to stay alive” then the physiological responses caused by these stress hormones like fat storage or water retention make sense. Unfortunately, for our modern times, these responses don’t make as much sense. Weight gain for example, sadly has no impact on how much you may hate your job.

chemical beakers

So what are all these chemicals doing to me?

Our lives, our entire existence, is a series of reactions to stimuli around us. Whether that stimulus is a kiss or our hand on a hot stove, our brains release chemicals that make our bodies feel and react in different ways. Because we are wired this way, stress can have a great impact in several different areas of our lives.

Let’s start with the mind. Harvard Medical school wondered this same question, and performed a study on it. Remember our friend cortisol? One of the effects of cortisol is an impact on memory formation. Our friends at Harvard concluded:

“People with high levels of blood cortisol had much poorer memory when compared with peers with normal cortisol levels. Importantly, impaired memory was present in these individuals even before obvious symptoms of memory loss set in.”

These results remained consistent even after the investigators had adjusted for relevant modifying factors, such as age, sex, smoking habit, and body mass index (BMI).

Furthermore, according to Touro University Worldwide:

“[Cortisol] can disrupt synapse regulation, resulting in the loss of sociability and the avoidance of interactions with others. Stress can kill brain cells and even reduce the size of the brain. Chronic stress has a shrinking effect on the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for memory and learning.

While stress can shrink the prefrontal cortex, it can increase the size of the amygdala, which can make the brain more receptive to stress. “Cortisol is believed to create a domino effect that hard-wires pathways between the hippocampus and amygdala in a way that might create a vicious cycle by creating a brain that becomes predisposed to be in a constant state of fight-or-flight,” Christopher Bergland writes in Psychology Today.”

Nasty stuff that Cortisol.

stress chemicals

What about our bodies? Look, as pointed out, we’re walking bags of chemicals, so disproportionate amounts of certain ones are bound to cause reactions. Think about ads you see on TV for medications, there’s always a long list of side effects – some of which sound worse that the original problem! The chemicals our bodies produce aren’t any safer and when out of balance can cause numerous issues. Some of these issues manifest in the mind, and others manifest physically in your body. Our friends at the Mayo Clinic have identified several common effects that stress chemicals can produce including:

Common effects of stress on your body

  • Headache
  • Muscle tension or pain
  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue
  • Change in sex drive
  • Stomach upset
  • Sleep problems

Common effects of stress on your mood

  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Lack of motivation or focus
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Irritability or anger
  • Sadness or depression

Common effects of stress on your behavior

  • Overeating or undereating
  • Angry outbursts
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Tobacco use
  • Social withdrawal
  • Exercising less often

That’s a hell of a lot of side effects! If you saw that on a medication you were considering taking, you’d probably run like hell from it (a wise choice in my opinion!) So with those basics out of the way, how does stress specifically affect fitness? If you’ve stuck with me to this point, some of the following may be pretty obvious, but since this is a fitness blog, and I’m a thorough (if not wordy) guy, here we go!

Effects of stress on your diet.

Short term stress actually curbs your diet, catecholamines and adrenaline curb your desire to eat. Unfortunately, over prolonged periods of time, our ugly little friend cortisol shows up to the party and wreaks havoc. Cortisol is responsible for not only increased appetite, but also increased motivation, coupled together, you get “the motivation to eat”. When you add in Ghrelin, you’ve got a recipe for weight gain.

sugary sweets

Due to interactions with other hormones like higher levels of insulin, you don’t just crave any kind of food, your body craves high fat, high sugar foods. This makes sense for the caveman who’s stress might be caused by trying to avoid starvation. These high calorie energy sources coupled with the motivation side effect would logically help him go secure food for him or herself. Unfortunately for us, we have Taco Bell, McDonalds and ice cream. Feeding our stress the foods we crave is all too easy, and we see it on the scale. I’m also sorry to tell you that mother nature is sexist. Stress eating induced obesity is more prevalent in women than men. On the bright side for you ladies, we men turn to alcohol and cigarettes more frequently than you do when coping with stress, so at least you don’t have that.

Effects of stress on exercise

All these chemicals free roaming around your body impact your exercise as well. A study in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology found that mental fatigue negatively affects physical performance. Their findings state that cognitive fatigue increased the perception of exertion, leading to lesser performance on the current task. In other words if your brain is tired, it will assume that your body is tired, making it harder to perform at peak levels, or even the levels you may be used to.

Furthermore, consider that stress is known to increase muscle tension, the aforementioned concentration/memory issues and causes general fatigue. Therefore, you stand a much greater chance of injuring yourself while exercising if you are overly stressed.

Additionally, as we just outlined, if stress hormones are running rampant through your body for any length of time, there’s a good chance your diet isn’t on point. This is going to have an impact on your recovery times and also your overall progress. If this connection is a mystery to you, check out my post on Macronutrients.

According to a Finnish study noted in a Huffington Post article, out of 44 people starting a new cycling regimen, those who reported the highest stress levels showed the least improvement over a two-week period, in spite of doing the same workouts as everyone else.

The takeaway here is if you’re stressed out, be careful when you work out! Recognize that you might not be on top of your game, and go a little easier on yourself to avoid injury and frustration with decreased gains.

The Good News

I know, thanks for the pick-me-up right? We all deal with stress in our lives, whether it’s having to give a report in school as a kid or relationship trouble as an adult to more serious issues like dealing with a major illness or processing the death of a loved one. So therefore we all have this constant chemical bath happening inside of us to a greater or lesser extent. What matters is how we deal with it. That’s the bright spot in all of this. Just like your workouts, YOU are in charge. There are some things you can do to cut down on – or at least lessen – the effects of stress in your life. Consider the following:

healthy runner combating stress

Yes, I know we just talked about the impact of stress on exercise, but the converse is also true – exercise impacts stress.

If you’re not feeling like running 10 miles today, or tackling that cardio boxing routine, maybe yoga would be a better fit today, or swimming, hiking or walking. Anything that keeps your body moving will help.

Exercise combats some of the negative effects of the rampaging stress hormones with some pretty cool effects of its own.

  • Exercise causes the release of endorphins (the feel good neurotransmitter). Endorphins can combat some of the negative effects of the stress chemicals being released into your body.
  • Exercise is a form of moving meditation – meaning it gives your brain a chance to tune out the thing or things that are causing your stress and focus on a familiar task. It can also have a positive impact on your sleep, which stress can also mess with.

Focus on your diet
Fight those bad food cravings that we outlined when talking about cortisol and ghrelin. Make sure you’re eating properly. A proper diet can help keeping your energy levels constant and fight the fatigue that stress brings with it.

Get proper sleep
Make sure you’re getting good sleep. Stress can make this difficult and leave us tossing and turning, but proper rest is essential to many facets of your life – not just stress reduction. Plan your bedtime to ensure at least 7 hours of sleep and start a bedtime routine every night an hour or so before you go to bed:

  • Stop using technology (anything with a screen)
  • Lower the light levels with a dimmer switch
  • Read a book
  • Consider using a sound machine to simulate nature or ocean sounds
  • Turn down the temperature in your room or open the window a crack. Studies say 60 degrees (chilly in my opinion!) is the perfect temperature for sleeping.
aromatherapy candle

Consider aromatherapy
Pleasant, calming scents have been shown to lower anxiety and stress and improve sleep. Aromatherapy can be practiced via the use of essential oils, or simply by lighting a candle.

Reduce or cease stimulant use
This may seem like a tough one, but cutting caffeine out, or at least drinking less of it (whether that’s tea, soda or coffee) can be helpful in reducing stress. Especially a few hours before bedtime!

Spend time with family and friends
Unless they’re the ones causing your stress, spending time among people who care about you can give you a sense of self worth and belonging. Furthermore, it can be very therapeutic to talk with others about whatever is causing you stress.

Saying no is not a bad thing!
Sometimes our stress can be alleviated by simply saying “no” to things that we don’t want to do, or that may contribute to our feelings of stress. Too often, people want to avoid saying “no” so that they’re not letting others down. If you’re honest with yourself though, showing up to something you don’t really want to be a part of is probably letting people down more than if you simply declined the invitation in the first place.

Saying “no” is also empowering. When we feel stressed, sometimes things feel out of our control. Simply saying “no” to things is a great reminder that we’re still in charge of our lives.

Get outside
Getting out among nature can be a relaxing and therapeutic measure to reducing stress. Walks in the woods, or even around the city can be helpful in reducing feelings of stress.

meditation for stress relief

Breathe deeply and meditate
The simple act of closing our eyes, and quietly filling and emptying our lungs with air for a few minutes can help ease tension and settle the mind. It may not be for you, but meditation can be an even more powerful way to accomplish the same effect. If you’re interested in giving it a go, Headspace is a great free app you can download to your phone that will guide you through some short free meditations (3-12 minutes – you decide how long).

All in all, We can’t completely avoid stress, but with a little work, we CAN lessen it’s impact on our lives. So what are your thoughts on stress reduction? Do you have anything you do to decrease stress or its effects in your life? Leave a comment below and let us all know.

Know someone who might like this article? Please share it with them, or via your social media network, it helps the blog out, and you never know who you might be responsible for motivating to live a healthier lifestyle!

Research Links:

Mayo Clinic – Chronic Stress Puts Your Health At Risk

Stress and Hormones

Harvard Study – Circulating cortisol and cognitive and structural brain measures

Touro University Worldwide – How Stress Affects The Brain

Mayo Clinic – Stress symptoms: Effects on your body and behavior

Harvard Health Publishing: How stress can make us overeat

Stressed Out? It Could Be Affecting Your Workout!

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