Could your existing exercise routine be causing you more stress?

In this week’s blog, Muto’s resident holistic health, fitness and lifestyle coach Francesca B tells us how stress and ‘overdoing it’ can have serious negative effects on your body, mind and lifestyle, and what activities are best for overcoming this.

Most people I come across living and working in London today are operating on a constant low level of fight/flight response, thanks to constant stimulation. The human body evolved this fight/flight response in the sympathetic nervous system for use in the event of acute danger, like being faced with a tiger or life and death situations. In these situations, the digestive and reproductive systems shut down, glucose is pumped to the muscles to enable you to fight or to run from the tiger (or in some cases freeze!), blood pressure and heart rate increases, pupils dilate and the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol are pumped into the body.

Nowadays, we’re now more likely to go into ‘survival’ mode over a passive aggressive email than a hungry tiger. The pressure to achieve, strive to do and be more, lack of sleep, work or relationship issues, a poor diet, busy commutes, lack of sunshine and technological bombardment are present more than ever before. These factors and stresses are cumulative – with all these triggers going on throughout each day you can see how the fight/flight response is constantly at a low level.

The science behind stress

Stress suppresses the immune system creating inflammation and fluid retention in the body, particularly if cortisol levels are low. The body goes into a catabolic state, breaking down its own tissue – creating more inflammation and allergy responses. There becomes a major imbalance in your body and mind if the parasympathetic nervous system responsible for growth, repair, digestion, breathing and regeneration has not been activated enough through proper rest, good quality sleep, quiet time and breathing from the diaphragm. Long term chronic stress, where the body can only produce low levels or no cortisol at all, may result in chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, autoimmune diseases, a suppressed immune system and more. 

But I thought exercise was meant to help with stress?

Some people do find that aggressive workouts like boxing or sprinting can help with temporary incidents of anger or irritation. However, when you “hit the gym hard” with these kind of explosive and exhausting exercises like HIIT, the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated once again releasing cortisol and adrenaline. In individuals suffering long term stress, this can actually increase the likelihood of the body breaking down its own muscle tissue, sabotaging your goals and making you feel tired and achey in the process, as there are not enough energy reserves for the growth and repair that takes place post training. 

Plus many very busy people end up trying to fit their workouts in around a hectic schedule. Training late at night goes against the body’s natural biological rhythms and you’ll be pumping out cortisol and adrenaline at the wrong time of day, leaving you feeling tired but wired by bedtime. 

How to reduce stress inflammation through activity

Movement can of course be great for all kinds of things, but if you’re feeling exhausted, irritable and stressed out, I would recommend skipping the bootcamp and trying a more yin activity like restorative or yin yoga: it works deeply to release the fascia and connective tissue by holding postures anywhere between 2-7 minutes. The restorative poses are designed to reduce and ease  muscular tension in the body and regulate the autonomic nervous system in turn helping you feel deeply relaxed. If you’re not into yoga, Tai chi/Qi gong are ancient and excellent forms of martial arts that draw energy in and help to rebalance the body and mind. Meditation, pranayama, deep breathing or having bodywork with a trusted health practitioner can also help put you into a parasympathetic state.

I often work with my clients to release the diaphragm where a lot of tension and anxiety is held followed by deep breathing. It can have a very calming and liberating effect and really does reduce inflammation and the stress response.

Some closing remarks

To recap, some stress is good because it gives us our ‘get up and go’. You’ll know when you’re suffering from too much stress though; if this occurs simply remember these rules of thumb:  

  1. Listen to your body.
  2. Ensure you are getting enough quiet time and follow a good sleep routine. 
  3. If you are feeling fatigued, don’t train hard. Choose a yin activity instead to draw in energy and cultivate your life force.

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