Adrenal Fatigue and Exercise: Start Low and Go Slow

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3 types of exercisesIf you have adrenal fatigue, exercise is probably the last thing you feel like doing. But before you skip this blog, listen to all the good things it will do for you. And remember: dancing and making love are exercise too!

Benefits of Exercise

Rapid breathing expels volatile gases out of your body that become harmful if they build up. The increased blood flow helps keep plaque from building up in your arteries while stimulating your liver to perform its 3,000+ functions more efficiently. Cell function improves with the accompanying acceleration of carbon dioxide, oxygen and nutrient exchange. Exercise normalizes levels of cortisol, insulin, blood glucose, growth hormone, thyroid, and several other hormones and puts more oxygen into your brain.

Exercise also decreases depression, which is a common side effect of adrenal fatigue. There are studies that show that exercise can be as effective in treating depression as are some pharmaceutical agents. Physical activity is empowering as well as rejuvenating.

What Exercise is Best for Adrenal Fatigue?

Exercise should be enjoyable. It should not be highly competitive, grueling or debilitating. What you need is something that increases lung capacity, muscle tone and flexibility while having fun. (See illustration “Exercises – combine aerobics, anaerobics and flexibility”).

Yoga with breathing exercises, ta’i chi, kick boxing, swimming, fast walking, dancing, and any number of team sports and exercise programs are all good ways to get your body moving. Pick something that is enjoyable to you. Remember you are not working out to run a marathon or set new records, but to bring your body back to life and take pleasure in it again. There will be days, especially when you first begin exercising, that you do not feel like doing anything physical. When this happens, instead of forcing yourself to exercise, start slow and gently work into it.

In other words, do not let the exercise become another stressor in your life. When part of you resists, simply treat that part with kind understanding, acknowledge its resistance, but do not let it undermine your commitment to your health. People with adrenal fatigue often feel too tired to exercise. However, if you set a routine time to exercise, no matter how you feel, you will soon experience the rewards of your self-discipline.

How Do I Know if I Am Exercising Correctly?

Exercise at your own pace and not the pace of the person next to you or your friends. If you get tired, rest or quit for a while or for the day. If you are tired the next morning, take it easier the next time. As your stamina increases, gradually increase your exercise.

The purpose of exercising in this program is not necessarily to become stronger, but to increase your body’s tone, flexibility and aerobic capacity. Two weeks after you start exercising daily you should notice that you are beginning to feel better. You should feel good after a workout and should only be slightly or mildly sore the day after. If you feel worse after a workout or the next morning, you probably exercised too hard and need to step it down a notch.

Type A personalities who are out of shape are particularly prone to doing this. In their minds, they are in much better condition than they actually are and so make more demands on their bodies than they should. Exercise done properly makes you feel better physically and mentally. If you are not experiencing this within a few weeks of starting a regular program, either cut back a little or try a different kind of exercise. The most important requirement is that exercise becomes enjoyable for you.

Further reading on exercising for adrenal fatigue: Fundamentals of fitness: Cardiovascular Exercise; Getting Fit to Get Happy; Exercising for Stress Relief

Dr. James L. WilsonAbout the Author: With a researcher’s grasp of science and a clinician’s understanding of its human impact, Dr. Wilson has helped many physicians understand the physiology behind and treatment of various health conditions. He is acknowledged as an expert on alternative medicine, especially in the area of stress and adrenal function. Dr. Wilson is a respected and sought after lecturer and consultant in the medical and alternative healthcare communities in the United States and abroad. His popular book Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome has been received enthusiastically by physicians and the public alike, and has sold over 400,000 copies. Dr. Wilson resides with his family in sunny Tucson, Arizona.

Sleep Disruptions Can Be Caused by Stress and Adrenal Function

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woman with insomnia by Flickr user Alyssa L Miller

One major thing I have gained from Dr. Wilson’s vast understanding of the role of hypopthalmic, pituitary and adrenal function (the HPA axis) is that an excellent night’s sleep is very much the result of a balanced HPA axis. If you suffer from a cortisol imbalance, you will not only have energy disturbances, you will have sleep disturbances! Do you have an issue with sleep? Then please read this article. I know it may seem a bit top heavy on the technical side, but if you slowly go through the material it will make a lot of sense. You can gain a great amount of understanding about stress, insomnia and energy by understanding Dr. Wilson’s work. Here is an excellent article from Dr. Wilson regarding sleep and cortisol. -Eric Bakker, ND

Stress and adrenal function affect sleep, particularly the circadian pattern of cortisol secretion by the adrenal glands. Circulating cortisol normally rises and falls throughout the 24 hour daily cycle, and is typically highest at around 8 AM and lowest between midnight and 4 AM. Both high and low nighttime cortisol levels can interrupt sound sleep. Stress normally causes a surge in adrenal hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that increase alertness, making it more difficult to relax into sound sleep–especially when they remain high or rise and fall irregularly through the night. Frequent or constant stress can chronically elevate these hormone levels, resulting in a hyper-vigilant state incompatible with restful sleep.

If this is the reason for poor sleep, anything that reduces stress and enhances the ability to handle stress may improve sleep. This can include relaxation, breathing and/or meditation techniques, certain yoga postures, healthy lifestyle changes, and stress-relieving life alterations. Refraining from vigorous exercise in the evening and taking time to consciously relax before going to bed may calm the adrenals and help lower cortisol and adrenaline levels.

When the adrenals fatigue, adrenal hormone levels may become low, leading to another possible source of nighttime sleep disruption–low blood sugar. Cortisol plays an important role in maintaining blood sugar (glucose) levels around the clock. Although blood glucose is normally low by the early morning hours, during adrenal fatigue cortisol levels may not stay sufficient to adequately sustain blood glucose. Low glucose signals an internal alarm (glucose is the main fuel for all cells, including brain cells) that disrupts sleep so the person can wake up and refuel.

Low nighttime blood glucose can also result from inadequate glycogen reserves in the liver. Cortisol causes these reserves to be broken down into glucose that is then available to the cells. When low cortisol and low glycogen reserves coincide, blood glucose will most likely drop, disrupting sleep. Waking between 1 AM and 3 AM may indicate low blood sugar resulting from inadequate glycogen reserves in the liver, low adrenal function and cortisol, or both. This is often the culprit when panic or anxiety attacks, nightmares, or fitful, restless sleep occur between 1 and 4 AM.

If low blood sugar is disrupting sound sleep, supporting healthy adrenal function and dealing with the adrenal fatigue may contribute long term to sound sleep. Also having a healthy snack before bed can help fortify the body’s nighttime energy reserves. The snack should be one or two bites of food that contains protein, unrefined carbohydrate, and high quality fat, such as half a slice of whole grain toast with peanut butter or a slice of cheese on a whole grain cracker. Eating or drinking sugary, refined foods will only aggravate the problem. Sometimes exercising before bed can help, since exercise tends to raise cortisol levels. (more on blood sugar and adrenal function)

Lack of sleep can be a significant body burden that, in itself, can contribute to adrenal fatigue. Every time the wake/sleep cycle is altered, it takes several days to weeks for the body and cortisol levels to adjust. In fact, sleep ranks with diet and regular exercise as an essential component of a healthy life. People on alternating shifts with less than three weeks between shift changes are continually hammering their adrenal glands and may become very susceptible to adrenal fatigue.

Chronic lack of sleep is now regarded as a health hazard and has been associated with several possible health consequences. These include lowered immunity with increased susceptibility to infections, impaired glucose tolerance, low morning cortisol levels, and increased carbohydrate cravings. Lack of sleep can also elevate circulating estrogen levels, upset hormonal balance, and slow healing and prolong the recovery period. These are in addition to the decreased alertness and concentration that most people experience when missing an inordinate amount of sleep.

The consensus from research and clinical observation is that it is necessary to sleep an average of eight hours per day. Some people need even more in the beginning phases of recovery from adrenal fatigue. A saliva cortisol test done at night and compared with daytime levels and with the test standards for those times will help determine if either high or low cortisol may be interfering with sound sleep. If cortisol is a likely culprit, cortisol levels will be significantly higher or lower than normal for those times.

Image Credit: Flickr user Alyssa L. Miller

Dr. James L. WilsonAbout the Author: With a researcher’s grasp of science and a clinician’s understanding of its human impact, Dr. Wilson has helped many physicians understand the physiology behind and treatment of various health conditions. He is acknowledged as an expert on alternative medicine, especially in the area of stress and adrenal function. Dr. Wilson is a respected and sought after lecturer and consultant in the medical and alternative healthcare communities in the United States and abroad. His popular book Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome has been received enthusiastically by physicians and the public alike, and has sold over 400,000 copies. Dr. Wilson resides with his family in sunny Tucson, Arizona.

Stress: It’s All in the Management

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person relaxing with a book on the floor

Who doesn’t have some stress in their lives now and then? Sure, some of us have more stress present than others, but to some degree we all encounter stress on a daily basis: a traffic jam sending you into a temporary frenzy; spilling a cup of coffee on your favorite white blouse; the kids fighting at the breakfast table over who gets the first glass of orange juice. However, some stress is much more, well, stressful. A sick spouse, a lost job, major automobile repair costs, death in the family, dissolution of a relationship—these are definitely some major stressors. Nonetheless, how we respond to the stress can make a huge difference in our health and the relationships around us. Here are a few suggestions on ways to cope with and minimize the impact of stress:

Exercise

Take some time to get your heart pumping at least 3 times a week for 30 minutes or more. Try different options until you find something you really enjoy. The thought of exercising becomes a lot less daunting if you are going to have fun or be with someone whom you enjoy. Exercise may feel like the last thing you have the energy and time for, but believe us: it is worth every second and will get easier.

Take up a new hobby, or rekindle an old one

Chronic stress and adrenal fatigue can leave you feeling flat and downright joyless. Doing something that once brought you joy can do wonders for stress relief. Don’t feel bad for needing ‘me’ time; you’re likely to feel worse for not getting it. Go hiking with a friend; read a book from cover to cover; plant the garden you’ve been daydreaming about; enroll in a pottery class. Expand your horizons and stretch your limits in trying something new and challenging.

Adopt healthy lifestyle choices

Just making a few healthy choices can create some positive changes in your life that can be permanent. Start with something easy like adding 3 fresh fruits or veggies to your diet each day for a week. Drink 8 glasses of water a day. Commit to getting a full 8 hours of sleep a night. These small changes can lead to even bigger changes that can help you manage stress so much more effectively.

Organize and prioritize tasks

It’s easy to think about everything you need and want to be done and get overwhelmed before getting started. Creating a daily “to-do list” helps to visualize what needs to be done and prioritize the things that aren’t as important. Planning also helps to use your time efficiently by determining how important tasks are and how quickly they must get done. Pick your battles, and don’t be afraid to delegate tasks.

Disconnect

That’s right—unplug from all the devices that seem to be controlling us more than we’re controlling them. Make it a habit to shut down and put away that cell phone, laptop, or tablet about an hour or two before bedtime. Have some family time. Read a physical book or magazine. It’s hard to separate our work lives from our personal lives these days with all of the efficiency of mobile devices, but try this just twice a week to start and you may be surprised at how relaxed you find yourself.

Practice breathing techniques

Breathing exercises vary, but can be as simple as closing your eyes, taking a breath and counting to 10 while exhaling slowly. Yoga also utilizes some fantastic breathing techniques and does wonders for reducing stress. Devoting 10 minutes of your day to quiet time and relaxation can be a great way to ease the tension created by stress.

Incorporating one or all of these suggestions can help minimize your reaction to stress. You will feel empowered and Once you realize that stress does not have to control your life, you can empower yourself with the ability to better manage it.

Strength Training – Put a Little Muscle Into It

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Benefits of strength training

benefits of strength trainingOutside body building circles and high school weight rooms, strength training tends to take a back seat to cardiovascular training. In a national survey, only 25% of all adults in the United States engaged in any kind of regular strength training, with women participating even less than men.1 2

What is strength training?

Strength or resistance training is the repeated pressure of muscles against a resistance greater than those typically encountered in daily life. As opposed to aerobic activity, which relies on oxygen to help fuel the muscles, strength training, or resistance training, is a form of anaerobic exercise involving short bursts of muscles at high intensity and utilizing glycogen for fuel, which doesn’t require oxygen. Strength training may involve machines or elastic resistance bands that you pull or press, free weights—such as dumbbells or barbells—that you lift, or even your own body weight in exercises such as push-ups, planks, or squats.

Busting the myths

“I’ll get bulky.” I can’t count the number of women who voiced this concern to me on our first consult for personal training. They were afraid that after doing a few bench presses and squats, they would look like the Incredible Hulk. The truth is, body builders spend years training very hard and eating a very strict diet to lay down the muscle that they do. It doesn’t happen “by accident.” Even women who do train incredibly hard will rarely develop anything close to the degree of muscle that men do simply because women’s bodies don’t make sufficient testosterone to do so.

“I’ll become muscle bound.” When done properly, an exercise program incorporating strength training not only increases strength, but range of motion and flexibility as well.

“I just want to lose weight. All I need is cardio.” Think again. Strength training impacts fat loss and body shaping in several different ways.

Immediate: First, there is the workout itself. Standard strength training for 45 minutes doesn’t typically burn as many calories as cardio, but it does burn calories. The amount of calories burned varies with the intensity of the workout. High intensity interval training or circuit training not only burns significantly more calories than curling a few dumbbells and resting five minutes between sets, but it can burn more than a cardio workout.

Post-workout: Strength training causes tiny tears in the muscles which must be repaired. These repair/remodeling processes require a great deal of energy. Calorie consumption can be increased rather dramatically for an hour after a workout and remain slightly elevated for up to three days post-workout.

Long-term: Muscle, unlike fat, is a metabolically active tissue. So muscle burns more energy just resting than fat does. As you gain muscle, your resting metabolic rate increases and you burn more calories even when you are not working out. Finally, strength training can shape your body in ways cardio can’t, giving you a leaner, more toned appearance.

Dr. Lise NaugleAbout the Author: Dr. Lise Naugle is an associate of Dr. James L. Wilson. She assists healthcare professionals with clinical assessment and treatment protocols related to adrenal dysfunction and stress, and questions regarding the use of Doctor Wilson’s Original Formulations supplements. With eleven years in private practice and a focus on stress, adrenals, hormonal balance and mind-body connection, she offers both clinical astuteness and a wealth of practical knowledge. Dr. Naugle also maintains updated information about the latest scientific research on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis function, endocrine balance and nutritional support for stress and develops educational materials about stress and health for clinicians and their patients.

 

References:

1. National Center for Health Statistics (U.S.). Health behaviors of adults, United States. http://permanent.access.gpo.gov/lps93697/sr10_230.pdf

2. Westcott WL. Resistance training is medicine: effects of strength training on health. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2012 Jul-Aug;11(4):209-16. doi: 10.1249/JSR.0b013e31825dabb8.

3. O’Connor PJ, Herring MP, Caravalho A. Mental health benefits of strength training in adults. Am J Lifestyle Med. 2010; 4:377-396.

Fundamentals of Fitness: Cardiovascular Exercise

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man on treadmill

People with adrenal fatigue or dysfunction often ask what kind of exercise program is best for them. Suggesting a specific routine without knowing an individual’s medical history, physical limitations, and personal goals is difficult. However, I am happy to offer some general recommendations. First of all, if you haven’t exercised in a while and you have heart disease, diabetes, asthma or any other health concerns, check with your doctor before you begin.

Physical fitness is a state of health and well-being that allows people to perform various physical activities. Fitness is commonly divided into four fundamental categories: cardiovascular, strength, flexibility, and balance. Fitness is a relative term; being fit for an Olympic gymnastics competition is different than achieving the fitness to run your first 5K race. Nevertheless, attaining a general state of fitness in the four core areas will give you the heart and lung capacity, strength, mobility, and balance to perform your daily activities with ease and help you achieve other personal physical goals.

Cardiovascular exercise, commonly known as “cardio,” refers to any activity that increases your heart rate and keeps it elevated over a period of time- generally 30 minutes or more- through repetitive motion activities such as dancing, biking, swimming, walking, or kickboxing. Treadmills, stair steppers, rowing machines, and elliptical machines are often used to achieve this at the gym. You may have heard this type of exercise referred to as aerobic. This literally means with oxygen. Muscles can produce energy for a short period of time without oxygen. However, if muscles are continually engaged, they switch over to fat as their fuel source, which requires oxygen to burn.

After several minutes of an easy warm up activity such as walking to prepare your heart, lungs, and blood vessels for the demands to follow, cardio should ideally be performed for 30 minutes or more at an intensity that is 50-75% of your maximum heart rate. Your maximum heart rate depends on a number of factors, but can be roughly calculated as 220 minus your age. For example, a 25 year old woman would have a maximum heart rate of around 195 beats per minute (220-25). Her target heart rate during cardiovascular exercise would be 98- 146 beats per minute.

When you are in your target heart range, your heart rate and breathing are increased and you typically sweat, but you are still able to talk. This ensures that you are “getting a workout” while still obtaining the oxygen you need to continue to fuel your muscles. If you are new, keep your heart rate at the low end of your range. As your fitness level improves, you may increase the intensity of your workout and aim for closer to 75% of your maximum heart rate.

Cardio is an excellent type of workout for those new to exercise because it’s done at a relatively low intensity and because it has numerous benefits in the body, including:

  • weight loss
  • stress reduction
  • enhanced circulation
  • improved endurance
  • increased good cholesterol
  • reduced risk of heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes

For exercise benefits directly related to adrenal function, see my previous blog: Have Fun Moving!

People with a high degree of fitness can include high intensity anaerobic (without oxygen) training in their workouts, in the form of interval training. This type of training involves working at such intensity that your muscles don’t receive enough oxygen to keep up with the demands on them. A burst of high intensity activity is followed by a short recovery period before doing another burst.

During anaerobic training, the muscles utilize a storage form of sugar called glycogen as a fuel source instead of fat because the glycogen doesn’t require oxygen to burn. This type of workout burns a lot of calories, increases metabolism, and improves your cardiovascular response and aerobic capacity, and will result in burning fat after the activity is over, but you should have a very strong aerobic fitness level before you begin adding high intensity anaerobic training of this nature.

In my next blog, I discuss a different type of strength training that is helpful for beginners to incorporate into their fitness program.

Image Credits: man on exercise bike by Flickr user Joint Base Lewis McChord; heart rate monitor by Flickr user Digitalnative

Dr. Lise NaugleAbout the Author: Dr. Lise Naugle is an associate of Dr. James L. Wilson. She assists healthcare professionals with clinical assessment and treatment protocols related to adrenal dysfunction and stress, and questions regarding the use of Doctor Wilson’s Original Formulations supplements. With eleven years in private practice and a focus on stress, adrenals, hormonal balance and mind-body connection, she offers both clinical astuteness and a wealth of practical knowledge. Dr. Naugle also maintains updated information about the latest scientific research on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis function, endocrine balance and nutritional support for stress and develops educational materials about stress and health for clinicians and their patients.

Getting Fit to Get Happy: Have Fun Moving

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people jogging on bridge

Most people with adrenal fatigue don’t even want to think about lifting a dumbbell or climbing a mountain, much less actually do either of these activities. Others with compromised adrenal function miss the added energy and positive feelings their spinning or Zumba classes used to bring, but they no longer have the energy to attend. Finally, there are those die-hards who believe in the antiquated “no pain, no gain” adage and push themselves to complete their pre-adrenal fatigue workout only to be completely exhausted for the next three days—or weeks.

As a physician and former personal fitness trainer, I have heard many arguments against exercising: My muscles are sore even without exercising; I have to take naps just to make it through the day. There’s no way I have the energy to workoutI’m not motivated; I don’t have time.

If you’ve gotten the okay from your physician to work out, the arguments for exercising are significantly stronger than the arguments against it—especially if you are under stress or dealing with some form of adrenal dysfunction. A few reasons:

  • Exercise increases circulation. This improves nutrient exchange, cellular function and metabolism, which enhance energy production and a sense of well-being.
  • People with compromised adrenal function have less efficient liver detoxification. This can result in feelings of fatigue, headaches, and discomfort. Exercise stimulates the liver, enabling more efficient detoxification and enhancing health and energy.
  • Exercise helps to normalize hormone levels including insulin, cortisol, and thyroid. These hormones have far-reaching effects on the body, including regulating the breakdown of fuel for energy and impacting the brain’s ability to function properly.
  • Exercise has been shown to reduce the fight or flight response to mental stress1 so exercise may help you remain calm and unruffled while facing challenges or problems.
  • Exercise can be comparable to antidepressant medications in its ability to positively impact depression. 2,3

Even knowing these benefits, people are often anxious or reluctant to begin a workout program. When I work with patients who don’t want to exercise and have stress related disorders (cortisol too high or too low, or excessive amounts of stress), I challenge them to achieve one simple goal: have fun moving every day.

Yes, I know about sets and reps. Yes I’m aware that the guidelines from the Department of Health and Human Services4 recommend a minimum of 150 minutes of exercise per week (30 minutes of moderate exercise a day, five days a week) plus strength training two or more days a week. However, doing any movement at all is far better than doing nothing.  I believe in meeting people where they are while helping them get where they want to be.

Begin with a commitment to yourself to have fun moving every day for a period of time that is reasonable for you in your current state of health and with your current schedule. For some, that may mean a half an hour of aerobic dance. For others, it may be five minutes of slow yoga poses. Make your goal easy enough to reasonably achieve so that you can build a pattern of success. At this stage, duration and intensity aren’t nearly as important as having fun and creating a habit.

Explore different activities until you discover several that you enjoy: walking with your dog, dancing in your living room, pedaling a stationary bike while reading a new book, kickboxing to a video, climbing a rock wall, or taking a ballroom dance class. It’s important that the form of movement you choose is non-competitive and enjoyable in order for your stress response system to receive the most benefit. Once you’ve discovered movement activities you enjoy, created time in your day to do them, and begun to experience increased energy, satisfaction, and well-being from doing so, it is much easier to gradually work out harder and longer.

We have more about cardiovascular exercise here, and strength training here. Have fun moving!

References:

  1. Blumenthal JA, et al. Aerobic exercise reduces levels of cardiovascular and sympathoadrenal responses to mental stress in subjects without prior evidence of myocardial ischemia. Am J Cardiol.1990 Jan 1;65(1):93-8.
  2. Tordeurs D, et al. [Effectiveness of physical exercise in psychiatry: a therapeutic approach?]. Encephale. 2011 Oct;37(5):345-52. doi: 10.1016/j.encep.2011.02.003. Epub 2011 May 4.
  3. Dinas PC, et al. Effects of exercise and physical activity on depression. Ir J Med Sci. 2011 Jun;180(2):319-25. doi: 10.1007/s11845-010-0633-9. Epub 2010 Nov 14.
  4. (http://www.health.gov/PAGuidelines/)

Dr. Lise NaugleAbout the Author: Dr. Lise Naugle (ND) is an associate of Dr. James L. Wilson. She assists healthcare professionals with clinical assessment and treatment protocols related to adrenal dysfunction and stress, and questions regarding the use of Doctor Wilson’s Original Formulations supplements. With eleven years in private practice focusing on stress and adrenal health, she offers both clinical astuteness and a wealth of practical knowledge. Dr. Naugle also maintains updated information about the latest scientific research on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and develops educational materials about stress and health for clinicians and their patients.


Exercising for stress relief? Have fun!

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woman and child doing pushups together

If your stress response system is compromised, either reacting too much or too little, it is important to tailor the amount of exercise to a level your body can handle. This is because high intensity exercise or exercise of an extended duration tends to elicit a greater stress response. Adrenaline is secreted when exercise intensity is greater than 60% of your maximum and cortisol increases when exercise intensity rises above 85% or when you exercise for more than an hour. Here are some tips on exercising with adrenal fatigue:

  • Exercise should not grueling, debilitating or highly competitive
  • Pick something enjoyable! Remember: you’re working to bring back pleasure
  • On days you’re just not feeling it, start slow and ease into it
  • To avoid procrastination, set a routine time to exercise
  • Don’t overdo it! If you feel worse after a workout, take it easier next time
  • Exercise at your own pace – as stamina increases, so can your workout

Physical activity has a number of benefits, including promoting stress reduction, reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, and improving self-esteem. However, stress (either physical or mental) can actually influence the degree of benefit that exercise has on your body. Not only that, but stress can affect your perception and interpretation of both the difficulty and enjoyment of exercise.

Any kind of stress, including exercise, can elicit a stress response—a group of physiological adaptations that enable you to manage that stress. Hormones like adrenaline promote the “fight or flight” reaction. You have probably felt the effects of this if you’ve ever been competitive in your sport; poised and ready, your heart pounds and your muscles tense as you wait for the whistle, the gun or the pitch.

At the same time, your pupils dilate while blood, fuel and nutrients are rushed to your skeletal muscles so that you can run, throw, swing a bat, or kick quickly and powerfully. Another stress hormone, cortisol, moves stored energy into your muscles to allow them you continue to perform even after you get tired. Your body’s ability to increase these chemicals to adapt to stress and then return to normal levels after the stress is over is not only helpful in a game, match, or race, but beneficial to survival.

Sometimes this response gets out of balance. If you are subject to frequent extreme mental and physical stress, such as a police officer or firefighter might be, your body may have difficulty turning the stress response off and allowing you to recover. Having stress hormones circulating continually can actually increase some of the risks you were trying to reduce. If your stress has continued to the point that your stress response system can no longer respond appropriately, such as in the case of adrenal fatigue, you may have difficulty even secreting enough hormones to feel energized and able to handle day to day stressors, much less a vigorous athletic event.

Mental stress, even a relatively minor one—such as performing math problems—can dramatically increase your body’s stress response to exercise. Heart rate, breathing rate, and stress hormone levels (including cortisol) increase more when mental stress is added to physical exercise. If even a small mental stress exacerbates the cardiovascular, respiratory and stress responses of exercise, imagine the difference a larger stress can make. People who exercise when a mental stress is present perceive greater anxiety and report greater overall effort than they do with the same degree of physical exertion without the mental stress.

These findings have important implications for training. If you have a diminished stress response or adrenal fatigue, you are probably more likely to benefit from an enjoyable, low stress form of moderate exercise for less than an hour than from highly competitive exercise, high intensity exercise, or exercise that lasts for more than an hour.  Longer, more intense or more mentally stressful exercise can put additional demands on your stress response system. Have fun, take it easy, and listen to your body to get the benefits you want from exercise, both physically and psychologically.

Dr. Lise NaugleAbout the Author: Dr. Lise Naugle is an associate of Dr. James L. Wilson. She assists healthcare professionals with clinical assessment and treatment protocols related to adrenal dysfunction and stress, and questions regarding the use of Doctor Wilson’s Original Formulations supplements. With eleven years in private practice and a focus on stress, adrenals, hormonal balance and mind-body connection, she offers both clinical astuteness and a wealth of practical knowledge. Dr. Naugle also maintains updated information about the latest scientific research on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis function, endocrine balance and nutritional support for stress and develops educational materials about stress and health for clinicians and their patients.

References:

Webb HE, Weldy ML, Fabianke-Kadue EC, Orndorff GR, Kamimori GH, Acevedo EO. Psychological stress during exercise: cardiorespiratory and hormonal responses. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2008 Dec;104(6):973-81. Epub 2008 Sep 2.