When Good Stress Becomes Bad Stress
When I first started weight training heavily, and at the start of my personal training career, I didn't think about exercise as a "stress". When I thought of stress, I thought of the mental anxiety before a tough midterm or final presentation. It wasn't until a few years later, as my knowledge base about the human body grew, that I connected the dots: mental and physical stress are interrelated. When someone is undergoing a strong mental or emotional stress, their body is experiencing that stress physically as well. Depending on the individual, exercise can either help relieve that stress, or increase it. During a stressful time, you might actually be better off NOT exercising (or doing something easy like walking or stretching) than pushing yourself in a high-intensity workout.
I wanted to explore this topic because I feel the idea of taking a step back from exercise at times goes against everything our society tells us to do. "Work more", "push harder", "get shit done", "don't be lazy", "sleep is for the weak", "you never regret a workout", these are all common phrases we hear... but the constant go-go-go mentality and overstimulation from technology we experience in our daily lives can put us in a constant state of stress, mentally and physically. While getting things done is great, I believe life should be lived in balance; a state of give and take. If you work extremely hard, then you should take some time off. This goes for your job and for exercising as well.
Some common questions I see people asking trainers are things like "What exercise should I do?", "How often should I train?", "Can I work out 5 days per week?", and "Can I work out if I'm sore?". While it's not what most people want to hear, those people need to stop asking someone else what to do and learn to tune in to their own body; it will tell you exactly what you need if you take the time to listen. If you feel beat up from the previous day's workout, give your body some rest. If you have tons of energy and can't wait to hit the gym, that's the day to push yourself. Simple as that. On a day you feel stressed, a relaxing walk or stretch might do more for you in the long run than forcing your body through a workout you are dreading. I see so many people force themselves to work out on days they are exhausted and stressed, and maybe even sleep-deprived. What good does that do your body besides break you down more? Will you even enjoy the time you spend slogging through that workout, or did you do it to "burn calories"?
Remember that everything you do in life, you are trading your time for - which is your MOST VALUABLE resource. "Burning calories" is just like "wasting time". There is no point if you don't enjoy it! You can never get more time in life... make sure you are spending it wisely.
The reason this topic is important to me is I'm currently working on finding better balance in my life with regards to stress and exercise. As most of you know, I'm not actively training for Kettlebell Sport competitions at this time. As I mentioned before, I needed to find the balance after spending years pushing myself to do competition after competition - even if I didn't feel particularly motivated. I've spent too much time over the last 4-5 years training extremely hard, and while I absolutely love to exercise and don't feel I was just "wasting time", I do think some of it was in pursuit of a particular aesthetic I felt I needed to maintain (i.e. a six pack and 12% body fat). Unfortunately, being very lean and being in a constant state of stress from overworking myself for years has led to a slew of problems for me in the present with regards my energy levels. Every day I have to carefully monitor my energy balance and how much exercise I can do so that I feel better, and not worse, the next day. It's made me think a lot more carefully about how I treat my body with regards to exercise and nutrition, and also how chronic stress (of any kind) can wreak havoc if left unchecked.
Lately I find myself reserving my energy for movement I really and truly enjoy, instead of forcing myself to get a certain amount of activity with the badge of "I have a competition to train for" or "I need to otherwise I'm lazy". I've heard it said you only have a certain amount of life force to give out before you die, and that working out like crazy takes a whole lot of that life force out of you. Maybe it sounds morbid, but to me it's a freeing concept that makes me more selective about how I choose to spend my energy. I also have to say that it's great to not live in a constant state of being extremely sore, and to feel fresh more often! Rest and recovery is so underrated in our culture.
This has also led me to consider my stress levels more closely, not just from exercise but life in general. I used to think I never got stressed, but I think I just didn't notice it. It's so easy for me to become overwhelmed trying to keep up with the barrage of information on the internet and social media, as well as the cultural pressure to work really hard all the time. I'd say I do a pretty good job at taking "me time", but I still feel the pressure of emails and messages piling up in my inbox. I'm one of those people that has a hard time feeling relaxed if I know there's work I have to get done. When I start feeling the mental stress get too high, I try to cope with some deep breaths, going for a walk, or shutting off my phone altogether.
Hopefully I've given you some brainfood to chew on! Please chime in with your thoughts and experiences around this topic.