How Stress Erases Your Exercise Gains

Your own stress may work against you when it comes to fitness.

July 18, 2007 — -- Let's talk. If you are reading this, you may have either finally made the decision to get back into shape or you are already in decent physical shape but experience any of a number of stress-related health issues — ulcers, heart palpations and insomnia, to name a few.

When I start working with a client, I have them complete an entire questionnaire so that I can find out where they are at the moment regarding their lifestyle. And one of the questions that I ask is: Do you feel stressed?

Oh boy, the answers I get sometimes. It's like a waterfall.

Many of the more stressed-out clients I encounter have all the good intentions in starting a workout program to get into shape. They are eager to start running and lifting weights and want to be pushed.

I'm sorry to say that this is where I need to put on the brakes and slow them down.

These clients are often mothers with children, business owners, individuals in management positions and individuals who have big agendas to accomplish. Many of them understand the benefits of exercise. And yes, exercise can be implied as stress management.

But starting off a program too intense too soon can pile additional stress on to your system — not a healthy game plan, to say the least.

Effects of Stress

Physical exercise adds stress on your system — which is a good thing, if it is done correctly.

For example, the physical stress created from loading weight or resistance onto the muscles and bones through exercise tend to yield great benefits, strengthening them while raising your metabolic rate.

But the real problem is with overexercising. Overexercising can cause immune system suppression, which can lead to problems in your body such as sinus infections, respiratory infection, chronic fatigue and a host of other conditions.

Some of the other stress-related symptoms that can accompany overexercising include irritability, headaches, muscle tension, neck and back pains, arteriosclerosis, high blood pressure, indigestion, diarrhea, constipation, insomnia, depression — I think I can stop here. But you get the picture.

Of course, stress of another kind can be introduced as well when not exercising: mental stress.

"I haven't worked out today, so I won't eat tomorrow." Yes, I have heard lines like this before.

As a result of actions like these, that person might be fatigued, show up late for appointments — unless you happen to be Austrian, of course; we are all as punctual as clocks!— schedule too much for the day and get frustrated because of the slow traffic.

Sound familiar? This is all mental stress that some of you experience before going to the gym to attend a class or your personal training session.

Let's talk about what is happening when you do this. Your pituitary gland, the control tower gland in your body, as I refer to it, because it affects all the other glands, releases adrenocorticotropic hormone, which stimulates our adrenal to increase epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol.

We know that our adrenals directly influence how our body metabolizes and processes protein, fat and carbohydrates. Overstimulating the adrenals through the combination of mental stress, physical stress and possibly even nutritional stress from a poor diet can take a serious toll, weakening our adrenals over time and affecting our metabolism.

Easy Everyday Solutions

So what can you do to limit this stress? Here are some suggestions:

Go out: No, I don't mean going out to bars and restaurant. Go out into nature. Instead of going for lunch, take your lunch into the nearby park or somewhere where there is a fountain, some trees, some greens and, best of all, a park. Your surroundings alone can often give you a relieving respite from your stress.

Walk: Instead of going to the gym and heading back indoors after a long day at the office, go out and take a walk. Speed it up. Feel good that your entire body is involved. If you speed walk, you are receiving a full body workout, including cardiovascular training. If you feel good doing it, start to jog, run and even sprint from time to time. Then add on strength training in your local gym.

Music: It is the era of the iPod, and what a great accessory it is for exercise! You can use it for anything and everything. Listen to some classical music. Or find relaxation techniques to download that you can follow by listening to it for no more than five to 10 minutes per day. You get the picture.

Power nap: Hey, wake up — I'm not talking about sleeping. I am referring to a power meditation nap. How are you going to do this? Lie on the floor on your back and bring your hands to your chest. Now just focus on breathing and try to get rid of any thoughts that come to your mind. Focus on your breathing. Most likely you will zoom out and fall briefly asleep and wake up rejuvenated. If you are nervous about not waking up, you can set your Blackberry or iPod. Both of them have alarm functions. After a while you will be able to know when the time is up. Count down from 10 to one and open your eyes. Try it. It works.

Breathe: When you are stressed, you start to breathe flat. Catch yourself doing this and make yourself breathe deeply. Repeat this four to eight times, and get back to work refreshed. Yawning is another great solution to introduce.

No more excuses. All of those solutions can be implemented anyplace, anytime and anywhere. Making your body your business is work. Even to relax can be work. So make it work.

Stefan Aschan is the owner and founder of, providing nutrition and exercise programs in New York City.

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