Stress is a brilliant topic, everybody feels it and everybody knows it isn’t good for us, but what actually is stress? For the purposes of this article, stress can be defined as physical, mental or emotional strain or tension placed upon us. Of course many of you may be sitting there thinking ‘how on earth does stress have anything to do with health and fitness?’-well, let me tell you.
The full effect of stress on mental health is way beyond the scope of this article. However, what we will look into is how the effects of stress have an impact on our thoughts and decisions, which consequently impact on our physical fitness and training. Before looking at research, the one thing we do know is that stress is closely associated with bad health.
Firstly, where we are stressed we appear to have difficulty making appropriate food decisions- much like when we are drunk or sleep deprived. This means that when we are experiencing a bout of stress we are more likely to make a decision that goes against our health and fitness goals. Secondly, stress can also lead to a loss of sleep, as I’m sure we all know. So, when we combine both of these points we start to see some startling consequences, including a severe reduction in driving performance, an increase in hunger levels, impaired immune function, and increased levels of muscle break-down.
With physical activity being the focus of this article, let’s take a look at how stress can directly affect that. Many studies have proven that a mental burnout (caused by stress) significantly affects people’s physical performance. Here is a few ways how it does that:
Concentration– There are two types of mental attention- internal and external. When we are stressed our concentration is forced to the source of the stress. This often means that all of our mental attention is diverted internally where the source of stress lies. Due to this, we have much less energy left to focus our attention externally on what we are doing- such as exercising. This prevents us from fully concentrating on the task at hand, which halves the potential results you could achieve and predisposes you to injury.
Co-ordination– Research from 2011 demonstrated that stress reduced motor-control and co-ordination due to its interference with information processing in your brain. This causes impeded physical performance and slowed muscular recovery after exercise, which can lead to chronic stress. Chronic stress is characterised by elevated levels of cortisol and is what causes us to feel more tired and sore 24 hours after a workout compared to people who are not stressed.
Fat storage– When we are stressed there are a number of specific hormones (including cortisol, as I just mentioned) that circulate the body. Due to these hormones we start storing more of our energy as fatty deposits rather than using it to fuel our muscles. Obviously, this creates issues for people who are trying to lose weight but are stressed.
Taking all of this into consideration, there are a couple of things we can do to help reduce our stress levels. Not only does stress cause a loss of sleep, but a loss of sleep makes stress worse. So, here are some things we can do to make us relax in order to improve our quality of sleep, which will increase our athletic performance.
Firstly, let’s talk about ‘relaxation response’ (RR). This technique first came about in the 1960s and, once learnt, achieves relaxation in 10-20 minutes. RR is simply the repetition of a word, phrase, sound, thought or muscular movement. The repetition helps the body return to its normal relaxation state from a state of arousal caused by the so-called ‘fight or flight mode’.
Secondly- and one of the more common techniques- is diaphragmatic breathing. It is simpler than it sounds and can be done by expanding your belly as you draw air in, rather than expanding your chest cavity. Diaphragmatic breathing works to reduce stress levels by resetting our autonomic nervous system (ANS), which synchronises our heart, lungs and nervous system. This techniques tops RR because it only takes a few minutes of steady breathing to see the immediate benefits.
Lastly, while stress can have a negative impact on your workout, working out can also help to reduce stress. Exercising is a positive activity that makes us feel like we are achieving something- whether that be a new personal best with weight lifting or a new fastest time on a run. When we feel this way, because of exercise, our brain releases hormones like dopamine and serotonin which counteract the negative impact of cortisol. These hormones makes us feel happy and content- putting those stressful feelings to rest. Research has also proven that people who maintain high-levels of exercise for long periods, have lower levels of stress than those who don’t. Exercise is therefore a great way to reduce and prevent the onset of stress.
As of yet, no research exists to show what intensity or duration of exercise best benefits us and our stress levels. So it seems appropriate to suggest that, for now, exercise of any type will aid with stress management. The simple trick is to find a form of activity that you enjoy and just go for it!
Following reading this article I hope that you have gained a little more knowledge on this topic, which I sure has affected all of you at some point in your life. Some important take away points from this is that stress impairs our decision making and can lead to a loss of sleep, which leads to a whole host of other issues. The techniques I have given you should give you an effective way to manage and prevent stress. By understanding all of this, I hope that stress will now have much less of an impact on your physical health and you can all achieve your full potential!
Thanks for reading.
C MacMahon, L Schucker, N Hagemann and B Strauss – 2014. Cognitive fatigue effects on physical performance during running. The Journal of Sport and Exercise Physiology.
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L Vargoli and C Darvari – 2011. Stress management techniques: evidence-based procedures that reduce stress and promote health. The Health Science Journal.
M Dallman – 2010. Stress-induced obesity and the emotional nervous system. Department of Physiology, University of California.
M Gerber and U Puhse – 2009 Do health and fitness protect against stress-induced health complaints? A review of the literature. Scandinavian Journal of Public Health.
http://www.dictionary.com/browse/stress – 2018