The Positive Power of Stress
We’ve all heard that movement helps relieve stress, and can produce feel-good endorphins. But how do we put this into practice? A round of burpees is not the same thing as walking the dog – do they both offer the same benefits?
It starts with understanding homeostasis: the maintenance of fairly stable conditions in the body, such as body temperature, blood pH, and hormone levels. Anything and everything that disrupts homeostasis is considered stress: losing your job, running a marathon, even forgetting your jacket on a chilly day.
Stress at Work – Even When You’re Not
Stress results in physiological changes called the stress response. These include the release of adrenaline, cortisol, and ACTH – the fight or flight hormones that rev up heart rate and breathing. When the stressful situation passes, our recovery systems take over, using up the stress hormones and returning us to homeostasis.
Experiencing stress makes us more efficient at producing and using these hormones. This is called adaptation. We adapt to exercise stress by building muscle and cardiovascular capacity. Psychologically, we adapt by gaining confidence as we overcome challenges.
It is important to note that all sources of stress (environmental, exercise, psychological) contribute to the total physical stress load on our bodies. And adaptation only happens if we give ourselves adequate time to recover. So a stressful day plus a HIIT class can result in an overload of stress hormones and even inflammation. This can lead to fatigue, depression, insomnia, hypertension, anxiety, sore and stiff muscles, and decreases in training performance – all things that a workout is supposed to be good for!
Keep Your Workout, Change the Intensity
Low intensity exercise doesn’t have to be something entirely new - make these simple changes to a workout you already love!
Reduce the weight or resistance. Use bodyweight movements instead of weights, or loosen up the tension on your spin bike.
2. Slow Dance
Slow your breathing and movements to a gentler tempo. Think about the difference between sprinting and jogging.
3. Get Closer
Restrict your range of motion to reduce intensity. Keep your kettle bell swings lower, try a smaller step out in your lunge, or decrease the angle on those TRX pushes.
4. Regenerate to Generate
Set the intention for this workout – this is about getting bigger/stronger/faster/better the right way. You’ve already done the hard work, now support your body as it builds you back up. Recovery today means you’ll be ready for anything tomorrow.
The Right Movement Makes the Difference
So does a set of burpees offer the same benefits as a walk with Sparky? Both types of movement are beneficial, but in different ways.
The burpees are a great example of a high-intensity activity. Strength training is another. These workouts apply training stress to the body with the goal of creating stronger muscles during the recovery period. Recovery for this type of exercise should be at least 48 hours between sessions to maximize adaptation and prevent stress overload. On a day when your stress levels are already running high, this type of exercise may add to the problem.
Dog walking is an example of low-intensity exercise – movement that supports our recovery from stress, while still expending energy, and getting our bodies moving. You won’t get a six-pack from only walking, but it will help your body build those muscles the day after a killer ab workout, and help you recharge during a stressful week.
So, when your heart and mind are racing from stress, or you’re still aching from that spin class two days ago, try low-intensity activity to reap the regenerating benefits of exercise. Alternate these low-key days with high-intensity workouts to harness the positive power of stress.