Should We Change Our Exercise Routine If We’re Stressed?

Stress is evolutionary.  It wouldn’t still exist if it didn’t have a purpose.  Many of use exercise as a way to relieve stress, but is this always sensible?  Let’s take a look at stress in a little more detail and the considerations we should make for our exercise routine if we are feeling particularly stressed.

What is Stress?

We’re all well aware of the concept of stress, or rather the feeling.  We can feel on edge and overwhelmed which can then often leave us feeling helpless and exhausted.  A quick search on google and there are thousands of suggestions on how to manage stress or simply feel less stressed, but given how many of us continue to feel this way, we’re hazarding a guess that those strategies aren’t working out too well.

But the stress response is literally there to save our life.  It pulls out the big guns whenever anything threatens normal bodily function.  Historically, this would have been to escape any predators that came to chase us, but we’re no longer sprinting through the wilderness.  Unfortunately, it’s that looming deadline or our finances that now threaten our normal functions.  Our stress response would historically kick us into action to deal with the threat, but oftentimes, short of finding a few extra hours every day to hit that deadline, we can’t see a way out of our stress.

But we must remember that the stress response has two sides.

The fight or flight (which kicks us into action) and the rest and digest (which gets everything back into balance).

Fight or Flight

The fight or flight response starts in the brain.

When someone confronts an oncoming car or other danger, their eyes or ears, or both (and parts of the peripheral nervous system) send this information to the amygdala, which is the area of the brain that deals with emotions. The amygdala interprets the images and sounds and sends a message to the hypothalamus.

The hypothalamus is like the command centre. It communicates with the rest of the body through the autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary body functions like breathing, blood pressure and heartbeat.  It also controls the dilation or constriction of key blood vessels and small airways in the lungs called bronchioles.

These signals get sent to the adrenal glands which start pumping adrenaline into the blood stream, which is actually what’s responsible for the physiological changes noted above.  Your heart beats faster than normal, so it can push blood to muscles and other vital organs.

What is particularly cool is that this is all involuntary.  So, you have no control over this happening.  You don’t tell your heart to start beating faster, it happens and then you notice the thud in your chest.

Your body and brain identify the threat.  Which is sometimes where the problem lies.

The Problem with Stress

Whenever you are exposed to something new, your brain forms new connections to establish the experience – whether this is good or bad.  These experiences get stored as memories, so when you are exposed again, you know what to do, or how to deal with it.  Like driving a car.

The issue is if you’ve had a bad meeting with a manager previously, you’ll dread future meetings, and your stress response will kick in.  If you have slept late once, you’ll often not sleep great for fear of not waking up in time again.  If you‘ve had difficult interactions with someone, being around them in future will likely kick up your stress response.

All of these potentially small stressors can soon add up.

Your stress response can be likened to a bucket; the more stress you experience in your life, the fuller your bucket becomes.  It can soon overflow.

At this point we must also realise that exercise is a form of physical stress on the body.  Especially when we are just starting out.  Our body doesn’t necessarily know that we’re choosing vigorous activity in our living room, it just thinks we’re mobilising to manage a threat.

The more we exercise, the more our body adapts, but it is still a form of physical stress.  This is why we must be mindful of how much exercise we do, and the type we do.

If we are having a particularly stressful week, it may not be wise to choose HIIT, but rather a yoga or pilates class.  For many of us, exercise is a form of stress relief, but if you are feeling particularly tired or struggling to get motivated to move, try a gentler form of exercise until you feel you are getting more of a handle on the other stressors in your life.  We want to stop our bucket of stress from overflowing.

Why yoga or Pilates you ask?  Well, a huge feature of both yoga and Pilates is focussing on breathing.

Of course, you breathe every day, but we rarely focus on it and a key sign that you are stressed is short, shallow, and rapid breaths.  This is because your body is demanding more and more oxygen.

A super-quick way to activate the rest and digest side of your stress is to practice mindful breathing.

Box Breathing

Box breathing is a great technique.  Imagine an outline of a box.  Breathe in along one side of the box for 4 seconds, then breathe out for 4 seconds alongside another side of the box.  Continue this until you feel your heart rate drop.

This side of the stress response can pop holes in the bottom of your stress bucket, keeping it from overflowing.

Now box breathing, or yoga doesn’t solve your stressor, but it does help you in the moment.  It also sends vital nutrients all around your body to help you think more clearly about the stressors in your life.

The stress response is there to save our lives, and we shouldn’t demonise it.

But we must also remember that exercise can ramp up our stress response, and this is more of a concern if we are new to exercise our having a particularly challenging week.

Exercise is so important for our health, both physical and emotional, but sometimes we need to be sensible about the type we choose.

This is exactly why here at InstructorLive we have the range of classes we do.

We want to help you move no matter how your week is going.

If you’d like any guidance on what programme may be best for you, please get in touch.  We’re here to help.