As the holiday season rapidly approaches there is no better time to talk about managing stress to improve health. Recently a number of events and research has come together that help illustrate the concept of how in general lowering stress input, be it from training, work, or personal life will benefit you. I’ll go into how nutrition, and exercise volume, intensity, and frequency can all play positive or potentially negative roles in health and fitness.
But first what is stress as relates to health and exercise?
Stress can be broken down into many facets, but for our purposes it’s easier if we think of it as stimulus acting upon our body and brain, including the nervous system and muscle tissue/fascia among other structures. It can be positive or negative, depending on the type and amount.
The goal of exercise, massage, physical therapy etc… is ultimately to provide just enough positive stress in order to cause improvement.
- Adopting good posture while sitting at your desk is better stimulus to your brain and body than slumping forward (negative input).
- Getting up every 20 minutes and moving provides positive input and mitigates stress caused by prolonged sitting.
- Prolonged soreness or achy joints produced by working out is negative stress. You should feel energized after training, not beaten down.
- Good nutrition helps us recover from exercise and improves results. Unhealthy food will prevent progress and make you feel worse.
We improve fitness or become stronger by doing enough to force our body (as a whole, including the brain) to adapt. This is where the role of a good trainer comes into play – and why a program must be designed with the individual’s physical state and lifestyle taken into account. And also why consistent results will typically not be attained from bootcamp type programs or group classes that by definition require a cookie cutter approach and cannot take into account the needs and current stated of readiness of each individual.
This is why doing 5 “hardcore” workouts per week is a recipe for failure for most people. It’s also why training to failure on a regular basis will not only not make you stronger, but often leads to injury. Type A personality individuals and athletes often have trouble with this one. More often than not I look for ways to put in more rest, mobility and positive stress into the training of these people, and purposefully not beat them up. Just enough hard work to produce results but not a bit more. This is also why we have many reformed Crossfitters who stick with us. They get individually applied training that produces results without constantly beating them up.
The following research illustrates how this applies to athletes. A year long university study in Norway (Journal of Strength & Conditioning 26(10)/2705) took a high level cyclist and reduced the volume of cycling training by 60%, and in place applied smaller doses of higher intensity training which produced 15% increased performance in time trial competition.
With our competitive cyclocross racers as we entered competition season I reduced gym training volume an extra 30% and prescribed even more mobility, foam rolling, and other methods to improve recovery than we had previously done. In addition I suggested reduced cycling volume in general, and depending on the individual programmed lower volume of high intensity intervals than they were used to, and more time off the bike resting.
What happened was this season we had no recurring injuries that had plagued these individuals, and better results in the races. They have felt stronger and fresh.
These principles apply to everyone, whether athlete or person wanting to lose fat and feel better. Here are some tips for dealing with the stress of the holidays.
- Stay on a regular exercise schedule. Block off time for yourself, and don’t be afraid to shorten workouts if necessary. 20 minutes 3x a week is much better than skipping workouts and doing a single 60 minute workout.
- When in doubt, or if you have been sick, then reduce the volume of exercise. For example do two sets instead of 3 and use the extra time to do more foam rolling and mobility.
- Be selfish with your eating and sleep habits. Don’t sacrifice eating healthy – anyone that makes fun of you at the office party secretly envies your progress. And who gives a shit anyway right? We are in control of our health and are responsible for our decisions.
- Massage, foam rolling, ART etc… become even more important in times of higher life stress. Treat yourself to a massage or 30 minutes on the foam roller at home.
- Make the time to go grocery shopping and prepare healthy meals that you can bring to work. There will be more sweets around the office, and nothing wrong with having a piece of pumpkin pie, but having good food handy will help take the stress out of food choices.