Stress and Exercise – Does stress affect your results?


Bradee Felton

April 18, 2024

Are you exercising a ton and still not seeing results? I want to bring some clarity to a possible reason this might be happening. Stress and exercise – overdoing it can actually backfire. When many of us think about stress we think about life circumstances, busy schedules, constantly being available, never ending to-do lists, finances, demanding jobs, etc. But we rarely take into account all of these things PLUS the stressors we physically put our body through when working out. While exercise and movement is an essential aspect of our overall health, there is a point of excess intensity that is too much if your stress bucket is already quite full and you end up seeing diminishing returns. So, let me break down tangible things you can do to help balance out the stress you are experiencing to make sure your body can thrive. 

First of all, I want to dive into a term mentioned above called the “stress bucket”. Everyone has a stress bucket, or an overall capacity for stressors across all aspects of their day to day life. For example, relationship stress, work stress, physical stress from things like exercise or chronic inflammation, lack of rest days, or lack of quality sleep. When determining the size of your overall stress bucket, we need to bring into account your personality type as well. Are you a little more high-strung and type A, or do you tend to be a lot more lax and go with the flow more often than not? If you are more type A, you most likely have a bit smaller stress capacity when things really start to pile on, and if you are more laid back, you might have a bit higher stress capacity and can let things roll off your shoulders. Neither one is better than the other or “right vs. wrong”, it’s just good to know ourselves so we have the whole story. As we start to work through some different scenarios, really reflect on how you tend to show up and realistically how big of a stress bucket you can balance without overflowing or reaching the tipping point. 

a side by side of a female who has experienced a weight loss transformation

So what are some signs that your stress bucket is on the fuller side? Digestion issues like excessive bloating or inconsistent bowel movements, fatigue even after a full nights sleep, issues falling asleep or experiencing restless sleep, chronic inflammation in the joints, headaches, chest pain or high blood pressure, a short emotional fuse – things set you off fairly quickly, an elevated resting heart rate, not seeming able to shut your brain off or be fully present around friends and family, sudden changes in your menstrual cycle, developing rashes or itchy skin, sudden weight fluctuations, and even panic attacks. If you are experiencing one or multiple of these symptoms quite often this is your sign to stop and really evaluate the stressors in your life, including your exercise. 

Let’s talk about the different types of exercise and their effects in terms of stress. High intensity workouts like CrossFit, Orange Theory, Barry’s, and other high intensity interval training work (HIIT) are going to be higher stressors. This is absolutely not to say these things are “bad” or you shouldn’t ever do them. We just want to be sure to do them at an amount that is realistic when looking at our stress bucket, or threshold, as a total. All exercise is technically a stressor on the body – some are just higher intensity, and some are lower intensity. None of this is one-size-fits-all, and there is a time and place for all of the different types of exercise depending on your season of life. What can your body tolerate in this season as a net positive stressor? That is up to you to decide with, hopefully, realistic expectations.

Now, let’s dive into the nervous system and what it means to be in fight or flight mode (sympathetic state), or be more calm and relaxed (parasympathetic state). First and foremost, we need to differentiate acute and chronic stress. Acute stress is helpful in the fight or flight response. This means your body is jolted with alertness, and stress hormones to create a necessary reaction. Things like avoiding a car accident, giving a speech in front of a crowd, sporting events, loud noises, getting out of a dangerous situation, etc. Chronic stress is more long and drawn out over time. Things like environmental stress, anxiety, depression, work situations, relationship situations, financial hardships, grief or loss, etc. OR when you frequently induce bursts of acute stressors consistently over a long period of time with little to no rest in between. In terms of exercise, this can look like back to back to back high intensity workouts over many days, weeks, or even months. Your body, and your nervous system need periods of rest and low intensity movement to recover from high stress situations. 

Alright, now we’ve reflected on determining factors that you can use to evaluate your current stressors and stress threshold, so what do we do if we need to mitigate stress but still make sure we are staying active and healthy? 

  1. Implement deload weeks throughout your training schedule every 10-16 weeks. It is really important to give your central nervous system a break so you can recover and come back stronger. 
  2. Focus on slow, intentional strength training with rest periods in between sets mixed with low intensity steady state cardio like walking.
  3. Deep belly breathing after high stress situations to bring you back to the parasympathetic state. This may sound pointless, but deep breathing instantly stimulates your vagus nerve – one of the main nerves running from your head, down your neck and chest to your colon – and reduces heart rate, blood pressure, and stress levels.
  4. Lowering the overall stimulus in your life if possible. Mitigate notifications, task switching and really evaluate where your attention is pulled. Lowering screen time can be a great way to do this, and make sure when you are using screens, they are for a more focused purpose instead of doom scrolling. 
  5. Taking walks or spending time in nature, preferably unplugged if possible. 
  6. More relaxing downtime activities overall. Schedule pockets of “nothing” in your schedule, even if it is only for 5 minutes at a time to relax and recharge.

I hope all of this helps you feel better equipped to evaluate, and mitigate stress in your life, and understand the role that exercise has within that. Remember, overhauling everything in an instant is never the best way to implement change, so start with small downshifts and compound them over time into healthy habits. If you would like help and guidance along the way we would love to help over in our 1:1 Mountain Metabolic Coaching program.

If you apply, I’ll be in touch to schedule a call. Hope to connect with you soon!


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