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  • Writer's pictureKourtney McCullough

Is Your Workout Reducing Your Stress Or Contributing To It?

Updated: Jan 5, 2021

About 7 years ago, before I took a deep dive into all things functional movement and holistic full body wellness, I spent a few years taking every high intensity fitness class under the sun 4-6 times a week, believing the myth that the more intense and fast paced the workout, the quicker I would see the “results”I was hoping for. Unfortunately, not only did I develop a lot of muscle imbalances from trying to do the advanced stuff before I was ready, I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue from over training.

Stress doesn’t discriminate. Whether it’s mental or physical, the body produces the same response. Our bodies are designed to do well in short bursts of stress (like when we needed to run away from the wild animal that was trying to eat us back in the day). Under stressful conditions, the sympathetic nervous system signals the “fight or flight” response: adrenaline is released into the bloodstream, cortisol rises, and other necessary bodily functions like metabolism and digestion slow down in order to prioritize survival over all else. When the threat subsides, the parasympathetic nervous system helps to dampen the stress response so the body can find homeostasis once again.

However, in our modern lives (and especially this year), most of us are living in a chronic state of fight or flight which leads to a constant elevation of cortisol levels. Pair that will very high intense, long duration exercise and we’re left with a great recipe for adrenal fatigue, which can show up in the form of exhaustion, brain fog and excess belly fat (just to name a few).

Does that mean we should stop exercising altogether? Of course not. However, we do need to recognize that exercise is a physical stress on our system and learn to be efficient with our workouts (and the stress that they place on our bodies). When strategically applied, stress can be a good thing to help us adapt and become more resilient. Here are three ways we can be more strategic about our stress levels:

1. Normalize rest in between sets. I used to teach classes where clients would feel so guilty about taking a break in between exercises because they had been programmed to make really quick transitions in hopes of “keeping their heart rate up” for the entire 45 minute workout. Truthfully, that’s not actually an efficient way to work. Think of it in terms of aerobic vs. anaerobic training: we want to get our heart rate up while doing the exercise, but then wait until we’ve fully recovered and let our heart rate return to normal before beginning the next set or exercise. Furthermore, don’t be afraid to take breaks or stop earlier than the allotted number of reps if you think you’re nearing your limit (it’s not quitting, it’s learning to listen to your body).

2. Notice how you feel before and after your workout. Choose workouts that leave you feeling more energized and aligned than when you started instead of more exhausted and depleted. If you’re feeling the latter, scale back on either the intensity of the workout (i.e., go for a Level 0 or Level 1 workout on KORE | KINECT instead of a Level 2) or you can go for a shorter duration: a 15-30 minute option instead of the 45 minute or hour-long workout. Progressing slowly over time is the key for long term success.

3. Prioritize recovery. Exercise is stress, but recovery builds endurance. Active stretching, foam rolling and using massage tools for specific areas are great ways to make sure your muscles are getting the circulation and blood flow needed to replenish nutrients. Aside from that, make sure you are replenishing your body’s electrolytes on the daily, especially after a good sweat. Look for a sugar free electrolyte mix like GoUltima, or, for a home made version, add a big squeeze of lemon and a sprinkle of pink Himalayan salt to your water.

Remember, your fitness journey is (hopefully) a marathon, not a sprint. Learn to listen to your body and be efficient with your stress so you can train smarter, not harder. Above all else, workout to feel good and improve your body mechanics and the aesthetic results will follow suit.

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