Managing the stress of trying to get fitter: part 1

Stress is, anything that has an influence you and your body, within your self and through your environment.

You can see how broad the word “stress” is then.

“I am stressed” is usually said as a negative statement. But in the context of exercise “I am stressed” is physically, the point. The point of exercise is to stress you out. Stress your skeletal structure though strength training. Stress your muscles through contraction, stress your heart, stress your focus, stress your current physical limitations.

The point of working out, is to stress you out.

I spend a lot of time watching people exercise, some are certainly working hard enough to effect a result of some sort, others are often working “too” hard to where you see their posture, movement and attention break down regularly, others aren’t working hard enough or relinquish focus and go through the motions. Others are working out their feelings more than their bodies.

Allow me to define some terms. In relation to stress, acute means “demands and pressures of the recent past”.  Chronic means “accumulated, long-term attrition”, stress from actions and circumstances that wear and tear you down over time.

A joint injury you don’t take care of, may have begun as an acute stressor, but can become a chronic stressor that derails progress over time if you don’t take care of it. Getting yelled at by your boss is an acute stressor, at the time, but having a job you don’t truly enjoy and a stressful work environment can become a chronic stressor.

Adaptation means change because of something. The process of adapting to a stressor, means you are changing in some way because of the stress. But what kind of changes? Well, usually we want the good kind of changes. In a fitness context, that means, lower body fat, more muscle or improved muscle performance, more strength, better cardio, be able to do harder exercises and show off more, etc.

Exercise, generally, is meant to put the body in a state that is physically harder and “more stressful” than you would normally operate at. But remember, anything and everything is a stress. Moving your joints in new and unfamiliar ways is stressful. So is lifting weights. So is walking uphill. So is hearing ideas you have not been exposed to before. How do you know what will benefit you and what will not? It always depends on where you are starting from, and where you are starting from, can best be understood from a personal stress management standpoint.

What does your personal level of health and fitness say about how you, as a person, and how you manage everything in your life?

Chronic negative stress, and it’s effects on us over time, is often less noticeable, or escapes our awareness, because we get used to it. We adapt. The stress accumulates, builds up, and without the ability to first recognize, think about and then balance out our daily stressors, what we get from our fitness efforts may not have a truly positive effect on us.

If you do the work, but at the end of the day, change very little, there’s a good chance you’re not managing yourself and your life enough to benefit from your work.

The time you spend exercising is the time you dedicate to pushing yourself closer to physical abilities you don’t quite have yet. Pushing your own limits. That requires energy.  This pushing of boundaries, requires your nervous system, your cardiovascular system, and your muscular system, to get used to working harder, and thereby make you fitter.

There is a fancy scientific term called “negative energy balance”. For comprehension purposes, we can use the simpler term “too tired” to express what it means in this context. “Too tired”,  in the way I mean it here, refers to the overall state of you and your nervous system on any given day.

When “enough” energy is present for your body to function well, the body is capable of change and adaptation to the stressors of your day. Capable of responding to what you are doing in a way that allows for progress of some sort.

Here’s a short example:

Two people show up to work out. Both are identical physically, but one has a family with small children, the other does not. The first gets 5-6 hours of sleep, the second 8-9. Both do exactly the same workout and with the same motivation (desire). The same volume of work (amount of sets, reps and weight). Who will get a net benefit physically?

Examples of chronic stress in everyday life; chronic low level fatigue from reduced sleep or poor quality sleep, a job you don’t enjoy and people you don’t connect with, being lonely, having emotional, mental or mood disorders, being poor, relationship difficulties or working nights. These are all situations that contribute to chronic negative stress in your physical body. They have a direct impact on how well your body responds to the work you put towards your fitness.

Exercise-context examples of chronic stress: Intense workouts with exercises you can’t perform well or with consistently good form, a high volume (lots of time) of working out without appropriate sleep and calorie intake, angry or punishing mental habits in exercise, high injury history, a mismatch of intensity to ability in programming or exercise choice.

How well you manage your stress, chronic or acute, will directly tell you of your “fitness level”, regardless of age (everyone is aging anyway). Those who are more fit, can balance stress better in general, and get a net positive effect physically and mentally. Exercise, in general, is always a good thing. (How to exercise, and in what amounts, is what can be debated and individualized.)

Continued in part 2

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