• Giles Henry

Are you exercising while stressed?

The human body has what is known as a stress response. There are many things which can cause stress to the body. These include poor nutrition, pollution, lack of sleep or poor quality sleep, negative thoughts, electromagnetic stress, and psychological stress. When people think of stress they mostly think of psychological stress. Having an argument with your partner or seeing things you don't like on the news are examples of this. The truth is that no matter what 'stresses you out' so to speak, the body reacts by initiating it's stress response which follows the same pattern. At the end of the day your body doesn't know the difference between you getting angry because you're stuck in traffic, if you are worried because you have financial problems, or if you are scared because someone is chasing you with a knife. The body will initiate it's stress response, sometimes called 'fight or flight', and the cascade of reactions that come with it.

I'm not here to bash the stress response as a bad thing. It's a necessary part of the human physiological makeup. What is bad is that in modern society, a response that was meant to kick in only in times of threats to your survival or wellbeing, is now active more often than not in millions of people. The damage that this is doing to human health is disastrous. Stress is now the primary cause of illness and disease in the World, and the situation is getting worse not better.

I will be producing separate content on stress and how to manage it, but for today I'd like to focus on what I see quite a lot of. That is, people engaging in intense exercise while under heavy stress. Quite frankly this is not a good idea.

When under stress, the body is activating it's sympathetic nervous system and releasing stress hormones (mainly cortisol and adrenaline) in order to provide you with the energy you need to get out of what it perceives as a life threatening situation (which in reality might just be you being upset that your football team didn't win this weekend). Blood is shunted toward working muscles, non essential functions for immediate survival such as digestion are shut down or reduced, and stress hormones are released. This response is meant to be temporary. As Robert Sapolsky points out in his book 'Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers', If you are a Zebra running away from a lion there are two ways the situation can end. Either the lion fails to catch you and the situation is over, or he catches you and situation is over. Either way it's over.

Today of course it doesn't work like that. Our stress response is kicking in all the time, often without switching off! Take a common situation that I have seen in many clients.

You get up early to get ready for work. You still feel tired. Your kids and husband or wife are also up and things are hectic in the house. You wolf down breakfast while listening to the latest bad news on the radio, the dog is barking, and you are mindful and somewhat worried about the report you have got to have ready for the bigwigs at work today. Maybe you even skip breakfast and gulp down a couple of espresso's instead.

You head out the door to the tube or subway, feeling pretty wired from the caffeine pumping through your system, and then get on the train. As usual it's packed and you are crammed in like a sardine in a tin. You've got at least 30 minutes of this before you can escape. While on the train you are thinking about how your kids are doing at school and why you're spouse seems to be increasingly distant from you these days. Anyway not much time for that, you've got to have this report ready for 2pm.

Finally off the train you feel uncomfortably hot and shuffle your way through the horde of people all trying to get to work. After being bustled around like you've been in a pinball machine you finally make it to street level. The air is polluted and the streets are overcrowded. You get to work, say hello to a few people and get to your desk. You get your head down to finish the report, but that doesn't mean additional work is not piling up on your desk. No matter you can see to that later even if it means taking some home with you. No time for a break and you can eat lunch while you're working right? A bagel or wrap and some more coffee should do the trick. Plus you've got a can of 'energy' drink should you really need it.

2pm comes around and it's time to deliver your report. Your stern and thoroughly ungrateful boss takes it from you and you'll await his response tomorrow. What if he doesn't like it?

You see out the rest of the day having worked 8-9 hours with virtually no break. You're still behind on the workload. They should employ more people but that costs money.

Now it's time to go home and it's the nightmare tube again. Let's pray there are no delays. It's nearly 8pm by the time you get home. The kids are ready for bed and you barely get to see them. Your spouse has left you something for dinner. If you're lucky you get to watch a bit of TV before sending a few emails and listening to your other half complain that you don't see enough of each other anymore. You finally get to bed near midnight still worrying what the boss will say about your report. You'll be up again in 5-6 hours and will have to do it all over again, and it's only Monday.

This scenario, or something like it, is not as uncommon as you'd think. Many people are under near constant stress and it's causing immense health issues. But why? Why is it so bad for people to constantly in 'fight or flight' mode?

Well the body exists either in one of two states. Anabolic or Catabolic. The first of these is what can be described as tissue regenerative. Anabolism equates to repair, restoration, regeneration and growth. Catabolism refers to destruction, breakdown, and cell death. Although the latter of these two sounds like something you'd never want, it is necessary as we are in a constant cycle of anabolism and catabolism. Every cell in your body gets removed and replaced every year, and your body is made up of trillions of cells. So anabolism and catabolism are part of our normal cycle and being.

The problem is that the hormones released during the stress response are catabolic. They are what could be described as tissue destructive. If you are living in a constant state of stress, or even too much stress, the body is spending a lot of time being broken down and far less time being repaired or rebuilt. That's not a healthy state of affairs. It is balance that is needed. When you realise that this situation applies to the majority of the people on the planet, it's easy to see why disease is so rampant even in a society which prides itself on being advanced. If this state of affairs continues in someone for a long time the pathway is inevitably the same:

Too much stress > Fatigue > Illness > Disease > Death.

So what does exercise have to do with this?

Exercise is a stressor! Yes for all the benefits that regular, properly performed exercise brings, it's a terrible idea for a body that is under heavy amounts of stress. Now by exercise I'm talking about intense exercises, and particularly one with sustained intensity. Imagine being like the person above and then going to the HIIT class at your local gym. A catabolic dominant system already flooded with glucocorticoid stress hormones is about to be put under great physical stress which is going to produce even more of these hormones. Factor in inadequate repair time (anabolism), poor diet, lack of sleep, medical drugs, artificial stimulants and others, and you've got a great recipe for a early grave.

I have routinely stunned some clients who have come to see me because they want to lose weight or get fitter and stronger by telling them that they are not ready for exercise. What kind of personal trainer are you they wonder? The kind that wants their clients to be healthy and vital, not sick and degraded. I'm not going to put someone who's pumping out stress hormones like there's no tomorrow on any kind of intense exercise program which is only going to make them worse.

But when I'm stressed exercise makes me feel better!

This is quite a common statement from clients. The truth is that you feel better because of the release of endorphins. The exercise is still keeping you in your already catabolic state and you should not sacrifice your long term health for a short term buzz. It's not easy to explain this to a lot of people as it's only when their body starts to physically break down that they actually start to take notice. By the time your feeling ill, a great deal of damage has already been done.

Have you ever noticed that a lot of people in the gym seem to exercise all the time but their body shape never changes? They find it near impossible to lose the weight they want for example? Well if that's you I'd take a look at your stress levels. The stress response is survival mode and your body is not receptive to losing body fat in this situation. If you are in a constant state of stress you are way off homeostasis and you cannot expect the body to function normally in this situation. If you want to lose weight or make gains with your training, then build a proper foundation. Nutrition, sleeping, hydration, stress levels, movement, and thinking. These are the 6 foundation principles of the CHEK practitioner and all need to be addressed. If you're banging out the HIIT classes with little or no regard for the other principles, then your in for a long hard road with minimal results.

Some quick tips for reducing stress levels.

  1. Eat healthy food right for your primal type. Organic wherever possible.

  2. Avoid artificial stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol. Don't drink so called 'energy drinks' at all.

  3. Get to bed early! Ideally be falling asleep by 10.30pm.

  4. Get 8 hours sleep a night. If you can't manage it get as many as you can. Your body repairs during sleep. Less sleep = less repair and regeneration.

  5. Drink the right amount of good quality water, not tap water. Buy a water filter for drinking. A good formula for how much clean water you should drink is 0.033 litres per kilo of bodyweight. A 100kg man should be drinking 3.33 litres of water a day. Adjust for hotter weather, exercise etc.

  6. Don't eat under stress. Make time to eat food in a peaceful and positive environment.

  7. Try to fit in some form of meditation or quiet time for yourself.

  8. Avoid unnecessary stress like pointless arguments with strangers on social media!Perform low intensity or no intensity exercises like Tai Chi or Qi Gong. Also walking or simple breathing exercises.

  9. Engage in activities that make you smile and laugh.

  10. Get out into nature.

If you want help changing your lifestyle and building a solid foundation on your way to robust great health, please contact me today on 07889167176, or at

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