I am continually awed by the human body, especially it’s capacity to adapt to whatever you throw at it. Despite whatever misuse or neglect you subject it to, year after year, somehow it keeps you moving. You likely experience aches and pains along the way, when the compensations you construct don’t work out quite the way you’d planned. For the most part though, no matter what you do to it, the body finds a way to keep on trucking. That is… until the adaptive mechanisms within you simply can’t adapt any further to the demands on the system, and your body begins to shut down in one way or another. This “shutting down” shows up as injury, illness, or simply as difficulty recovering from your various activities. And typically, people don’t pay attention until shut down reaches critical levels. Are you dealing with chronic stress in your life? Here are some things you need to know about stress & your workout…
In recent years, I have become increasingly interested on the effects of stress on movement. Stress has a dramatic influence on the function of the human body, which consequently has an effect on movement of the human body. But other than “breathe deeply,” how often do you hear it addressed in terms of physical conditioning and movement training? I am the first on that breathe deep bandwagon, for sure. But affecting real change takes a a change in attention. And the stuff you’re not paying attention to could be creating challenges that you won’t feel for a while, but when you do, you’ll feel them BIG TIME. Because once stress affects change on your movement patterns, it also begins to change the very structure of the body – and probably not in a good way.
So first, let’s talk about what stress actually is, and what it does to the body. Broken down to its simplest form, stress is basically just any force or tension exerted or applied to an object, in this case, the human body. In small doses, stress is actually good for the body. It takes you outside your comfort zone and it requires you to tax yourself in ways that make you stronger. The whole fitness industry is based on the idea of increasing stress on the body in measured increments to gradually increase strength and other physical capabilities. But in large doses, or in a long, un-interrupted run – stress can gradually but dramatically erode your health and well-being.
What happens in your body when you’re stressed? When your body experiences what it perceives to be a threat, your autonomic nervous system (ANS: the part of your body that regulates involuntary actions like breathing, heart beat, circulation and digestion etc) responds by firing up the “fight, flight or freeze” response of the sympathetic nervous system, a branch of the ANS. The fight or flight response is a critical part of the body’s survival mechanism. When the brain detects a serious threat, it floods the body with adrenaline, a powerful hormone which accelerates your heart rate, increasing circulation to the muscles so you have the power to face the threat head on, or run away from it as fast as you can. Your respiration speeds up, making oxygen quickly available to the tissues that need it. The pupils in your eyes dilate and your focus narrows to see only the threat in front of you. Fats and sugars in the body are made quickly available to supply your muscles with the energy to do whatever you have to do to survive. The parasympathetic “rest and digest” branch of the ANS is inhibited, to the point where digestive function slows down or even stops.
Pretty cool, right? It’s like the Incredible Hulk, only in real life! And it’s accessible to each and every one of us. But here’s the thing. The body’s fight or flight mechanism doesn’t only turn on in response to physical threats. It can be activated in response to emotional or mental stress as well. The kind of stress the experts call “psycho-social” stress. And it’s in this psycho-social stress that some serious problems arise. Because this kind of stress is what drives the western world. We are all subjected to it every single day. Everyone is working in an environment where efficiency and productivity are paramount. People work hard to get more done in less time – for work, for family, for the various organizations to which people give their time. Even in terms of physical fitness, the trendy workouts these days offer MORE (intensity, results, fat-burning, (insert quality here), in LESS time. People want to get in and get it done so they can move on to the next thing. There is often stress at work; people jockeying for position, for the next promotion, or just trying to hold on to the job. There is the daily maze of traffic. There is endless communication by phone, email, text and whatever other technology makes us available 24 hours a day. There is financial stress. There are kids and family, marriages and divorce. And… and… and…
It’s pretty rare that an individual has to deal with a serious physical threat that demands intense physical action to survive. But surviving the relentless complexities of life in the modern world is a daily event. The problem is that the body doesn’t recognize the difference in the types of threat it responds to. It just responds. There is evidence to suggest that sympathetic activity may directly influence muscle function and motor control by modulating the local muscle blood flow, muscle contractility and proprioceptive activity. If you’re not actually dealing with a physical threat, your body may not appropriately manage the effects of this influence. From a physiological perspective, stress is creating an action-packed sympathetic environment in your body. It helps you focus and get lots done. And from experience, I can tell you, that feeling is addictive! But the long term physiological cost can be significant.
In a study published in the Journal of Physiology in 2008 (1), authors Silvestro Roatta (2), Lars Arendt-Nielsen and Dario Farina (3) studied the effects of sympathetic-induced changes in activation of slow twitch muscles in the human body. Slow twitch muscles are typically those that provide a measure of stability to the body, and are important in sustaining endurance activities. What this study discovered is that sympathetic activity can inhibit the activation of slow-twitch muscles in the body. In the presence of a real physical threat – this might be useful. But, in the environment of psycho-social stress, the study’s authors come to the following conclusion:
“The faster relaxation of slow-twitch muscles could allow for more rapid switching between agonist-antagonist activations in flexion-extension movements in a fight or flight reaction. However, the effect of twitch shortening is not beneficial when sympathetic activation occurs independently of prominent motor activity (e.g. in the presence of psycho-social stress). The sympathetically mediated muscle weakening would increase the neural drive to the muscle and energetic cost of the contraction. Thus, the change in contractility would interfere with motor control and require the adoption of sub-optimal motor strategies. Both the increased metabolic activity and the altered motor control may be co-factors in the development of chronic muscle pain syndromes.”
Chronic stress, which many people experience as the status quo, can create unexpected challenges for the activation and integration of core musculature, for balance, for co-ordination and for the sustainability of efficient and effective motor control strategies. If you’re finding that your workout is more effortful than you think it should be, if you keep hitting a wall you can’t seem to get beyond, if your sleep patterns are continually interrupted, if you have trouble with balance, if your movement doesn’t feel fluid, if you have beautiful core muscles, but no stability… you may be someone who could use some strategies for calming the sympathetic nervous system.
So what do you do now?
1. Recognize that intensity is important, but not everything.
2. Stop bearing down to create power!
Bearing down to find strength is inherently “fight or flight.” Look for length and ease in your skeleton as you push yourself for “more.” When you notice yourself bearing down, ask yourself whether there is a way to create more space, more length in your body. If you can’t find it, then you are at the edge of your body’s current ability to support whatever stress you are trying to manage. Recognize that. It may mean that it takes longer to progress to that next weight at the gym. But your strength will be hanging on a supportive structure, instead of bearing down on one with cracks in the foundation. Bearing down is part of the emergency mechanism – getting those last few ounces of energy out of your body to survive. Or win the race. You want to be comfortable and capable of going there, but you don’t want to live there all the time.
3. Include more restorative type movements in your workout repertoire.
Try some yoga, pilates, walking etc.. Understand that you cannot approach these activities with the same drive that you bring to your crossfit or kettlebell class! The body needs variety, not just in activities, but in the way you approach them. Breathe, find space, explore different ranges of motion than you might otherwise do. Make sure you are actually accessing and stabilizing core structures – and not just tightening& toning pretty muscles. Muscles can’t work in isolation. Don’t train them that way.
4. Open your focus.
Part of the sympathetic drive is a narrow focus. Broaden your horizon. When you change how you pay attention to things, you actually change your physiology. See and feel the space around you. Broaden and peripheralize your focus. Notice the space, not the objects around you. Take time to do this several times a day. Can you incorporate this into your workout regime? Can you play with it at work? You’ll find that gaining a degree of flexibility in the way you pay attention creates a degree of what one of my mentors calls “autonomic flexibility” – or the ability to move quickly from a state of heightened attention & sympathetic activity, to diffused focus and a more relaxed system. (For more information about this, and some great guided visualizations & meditations, check out the work of Dr. Les Fehmi and his book “The Open Focus Brain: Harnessing the Power of Attention to Heal Mind & Body.” Great work that has impact for all areas of life. I highly recommend it!)
4. Find a way to let down.
Flopping down in front of the TV just numbs you out. Instead, try walking in the woods, or going for a swim, or going for a bike ride with your kids! Meditate, have a bath, make love. These are all great ways to restore energy, connect with nature, and with others, and will help you feel better inside and out. Before bed, consciously relax your muscles and your bones. Breathe deeply and easily. Feel your body letting go of the stress of the day and inviting sleep. Create a ritual that helps you to change gears and relax.
5. Go Hard! FEEL your way.
But remember you don’t want to tap into your emergency reserves too often. Learn to build strength that doesn’t always send you into sympathetic overdrive, or the fight or flight response. Feel your edges, learn where they are. Push those edges to gradually increase your ability to push limits without constantly overworking. When you reach what feels like a hard limit, choose whether you’re going to blow past it on sheer force of will, or find a way to soften the edge and support yourself through it in a different way. It may take a little longer, but it’s worth it. If you take the time to build up appropriately, you’re likely to gain a more sustainable kind of fitness.
Exercise is a great way to help you manage stress. In fact, I think you’d be hard pressed to manage stress at all without some kind of physical activity. Get out and move – however you do it. But recognize that our world continues to make increasing demands on your body and mind. Create ways to balance those demands and their effects on your nervous system during intense exercise as well as during restorative activities. Let your workout help you truly manage stress, not add to the long list of complications that stress can create in the body. It may feel foreign to chill out, or to change your attention, or to moderate your intensity from time to time. But I guarantee you that when you do, you will find a new energy in your physicality that allows you to push limits like never before. But you’ll be doing in with a full tank… not an empty one.
(1) “Sympathetic-induced changes in discharge rate and spike-triggered average twitch torque of low-threshold motor units in humans.” The Journal of Physiology, 586.22, pp 5561-5574, 2008
(2) Silvestro Roatta, Dept. of Neuroscience, Physiology Section, University of Torino, Torino, Italy
(3) Lars Arendt-Nielsen and Dario Farina, Centre for Sensory-Motor Interaction, Dept. of Health Science and Technology, Aalborg University, Aalborg, Denmark