How To Make Sure Your Exercise Routine Is Helping, Not Harming, Your Stress Levels

How To Make Sure Your Exercise Routine Is Helping, Not Harming, Your Stress Levels

Exercise has endless health benefits, and it can be particularly beneficial when it comes to stress management.

When we exercise, we release endorphins — hormones produced by the brain that help boost mood and reduce pain perception.

Exercise is important for maintaining mental health and has been shown to lessen the effects of stress as well as decrease anxiety.

Artem Beliaikin/Unsplash

Artem Beliaikin/Unsplash

While exercise can be good for stress relief, it can also add more stress to your lifestyle, making it more harmful than helpful in certain circumstances.

However, thanks to the fact that most of us are running in overdrive, piling up our to-do list, and wishing there were more hours in the day, sometimes adding exercise to the equation isn’t the best idea. Slowing down from time to time and allowing for more rejuvenation is essential in helping to lessen the compound effects of stress. 

To truly recover and restore our bodies and minds from stress, we need to chill out —  and this may demand a shift in our exercise routines. Otherwise, exercise can start to have the opposite effect on our health: it can be more harmful than helpful.

Stress isn’t all bad though. It allows our bodies allows us to adapt and make progress.

It’s important to know that stress is not automatically bad (even though it has a negative connotation). It’s essentially a reaction from the body to a perceived threat. Addressing that stressor — fighting it or fleeing from it — and then recovering in between stressors is how we adapt and build resilience.

Exercise is actually perceived by the body as stress. Even though it’s a positive form, it’s used to challenge our bodies. Our workouts place demands on our bodies so that they can adapt and make progress, such as increasing strength, building muscle, and improving endurance.

Man Exercising with Rope

But when there’s too much stress and it becomes chronic, the body goes into a state of breakdown.

It’s when stress (from any source, positive or negative) piles up and becomes chronic that it becomes problematic. If we don’t recover properly between stressors, our bodies are unable to reap the positive benefits of stress. 

In a chronically stressed state, stress hormones remain high and the body launches an inflammatory response. This keeps the body in a state of breakdown, called catabolism, which depletes the body. The natural process of tissue growth and repair (which needs us to be in a rested state) is impaired, as well as numerous other processes in the body, such as digestion, immunity, and hormone balance

Ultimately, if your stress load is high, piling more stressors on (including exercise) may not be beneficial — especially if the exercise you’re doing is very frequent or intense, not allowing for proper recovery.

Here are a few things you can do to adapt your exercise routine.

Using exercise to help you manage stress can be beneficial. However, it’s important to routinely check in and ensure your exercise is best aligned with your health.

And if your only form of stress management is exercise, it may be a good idea to also implement other forms, especially if the exercise you do is intense and demanding. Some ideas include meditation, getting out in nature, setting boundaries, and practicing deep breathing.

Matthew LeJune/Unsplash

Matthew LeJune/Unsplash

Below are some tips for exercising smarter — as opposed to harder.

  • Prioritize recovery no matter what. Don’t be afraid to take an extra rest day or two if you feel like you  need it. 

  • Opt for interval training with periods of rest built in. Short bursts of activity with the opportunity to recover in between can be less stressful to the body than long-duration activity.

  • Shorten your normal workout. If you’re usually in the gym for an hour, maybe you decrease it to half an hour.

  • Get rid of data for a little while. Trying to beat the clock, chasing PRs, or pushing the intensity to hit a certain heart rate — these can all help you improve and progress. But sometimes, they take the focus outside ourselves, making it more difficult to listen to our bodies and easier to push ourselves too far and overdo it. 

  • Switch up the type of exercise you do. If you spend most of your training time at CrossFit Box, try something less intense like yoga, jogging, or swimming.

  • Pause and reflect: Are you enjoying the exercise you do? Are you excited to do it, or do you dread it? How you think about exercise matters. If you perceive exercise as a chore and dread it, you’re putting more stress on your body than if you look forward to and enjoy your workouts.

  • Ladies: consider matching your exercise to the phases of your menstrual cycle. This practice allows you to ramp up exercise when your body is best equipped to handle it, and lower your intensity and frequency when your resistance to stress decreases.

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