All of us feel the effects of stress over the course of our lives, sometimes that stress is physical, (any exercises places upon the body and it is this stress that causes a physiological response) and ultimately the adaptation that’s makes us fitter, stronger and gives us better body composition. Other times this stress is psychological this could be issues with work, relationships, finances amongst other things.
Why does stress affect my training performance?
It is important to note that it doesn’t matter whether the cause of stress is physical or psychological the effects upon the body are the same, often these effects are known as the fight or flight response, the specific effects include:
- Activation of the sympathetic nervous system – this leads to an increase in muscle tone and heart rate.
- The secretion of two hormones corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) and arginine-vasopressin (AVP) – CRH is responsible for the increased production of the corticosteroid hormone cortisol, while AVP causes vasoconstriction (tightening of the blood vessels which raises blood pressure). Together CRH and AVP activate the HPA axis.
- Activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis – The HPA is a major neuroendocrine system and is the main controller of the stress response and also controls areas such as digestion, energy expenditure and storage and the immune system as well as mood and emotions.
- The upregulation of cortisol secretion – a powerful hormone that has effects all over the body. Its main functions include increasing the amount of sugar and fats in the blood, the weakening of the immune system, interacting with sodium and potassium excretion, reduction of inflammation.
Can some stress be a positive factor when exercising?
At this point, it is important to acknowledge that exposure to stressful situations is a normal part of life and short periods the response to stress is very important for the recovery from exercises, physiological and psychological trauma.
For example, in response to exercise all of the effects of cortisol are useful, the release of glucose into the bloodstream allows for muscle tissue to rebuild the glycogen stores that have been depleted through exercise. In the case of trauma, it means that we have the energy that we need to escape from the thing that is causing that trauma.
High levels of stress though, regardless of how they are caused, can even over a relatively short period, have a number of detrimental effects on us. These include higher vulnerability to viral infections and increased healing times from injury or surgery.
The negative effects of stress on performance
Over a longer, more sustained period that high stress has the most detrimental of effects on us, these include:
- Increased resting heart rate/waking heart rate.
- Decreased heart rate variability.
- Catabolic and anti-anabolic effects.
- Accumulation of abdominal fat.
- Decreased thyroid function.
- Large-scale suppression of immune and inflammatory systems.
- Increased risk of a number of chronic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, mood disorders, depression, Alzheimer’s disease amongst others.
Even if we were to disregard a number of the problems that long-term exposure to high stress causes us, there are some very pointed issues for us when we are working towards our exercise, physique and fitness goals.
How stress can detract from achieving your fitness goals
If we want to achieve those goals, we need to be able to maintain an anabolic state. This where the body is able to use energy to build and repair tissue. For the endocrine system to be healthy and maintain a proper balance of important hormones such as testosterone, insulin and cortisol. To be in a naturally occurring anabolic state is to be in a state of optimum health, everything needs to be functioning properly and we need excess energy available in order to allow the body to build the most expensive of tissues namely skeletal muscle mass.
We also want to be able to reduce body fat, especially around the abdominal area. For most of, us this is one of the most important issues that we would like to resolve through our endeavours with diet and exercise.
And of course alongside both of these we want to feel strong, fit and healthy.
In order to achieve these things, we need to be able to make good choices about food and lifestyle, have the energy to train properly and with the required intensity and to properly recover from those sessions. And for all of these to happen one of the most important things that we can do is to manage and mitigate the effects of stress.
Given that often there is no way for us to escape many of the stressors that may affect us in our day to day lives then me must find strategies that can be employed to help reduce the effects that these stressors can have on us.
How can you manage stress?
One of the most important strategies that we can employ when trying to manage the effects of stress is to increase vagal tone.
Vagal tone refers to the activity of the vagus nerve and the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system, along with the sympathetic nervous system make up the two branches of the autonomic nervous system. Where the sympathetic branch is responsible for the fight or Flight response the parasympathetic branch is responsible for the rest and digest response.
The vagus nerve originates in the brain and travels throughout almost all the major organs and is responsible for many things such as lowering heart rate, increasing heart rate variability, vasodilation and regulation of many components of the digestive system and importantly normalises an elevated HPA axis, which in turn allows Testosterone levels to increase almost other things.
There are a number of ways in which vagal tone can be increased, these include:
- Diaphragmatic/ deep controlled breathing
- Exposure to cold
- Taking a good quality zinc supplement
- Relaxation exercises
- Singing, chanting or gargling
- Taking a gentle walk
- Tai chi
In addition to increasing vagal tone there are a number of other things that we can do to help mitigate the effects of stress.
A few other tips for dealing with stress
Firstly, making sure that we get adequate sleep each night, by taking ourselves away from our connected devices an hour or so before bed time, also by eating some carbohydrates a few before bed will both help to get better rest. There are supplements too such as magnesium that can have a positive effect of sleep.
Secondly we can make sure our diet is rich in vitamins and minerals. We can do this by including lots of veggies and fruit in our diet, also by taking our time when eating. Chewing food properly and extending meal times so we don’t eat and then rush off.
At Omega Health and Performance, we take the time to get to know all of our clients as individuals and the stressors that they are living with day to day and help them to implement strategies both within our sessions and for them at home to help mitigate the effects of stress and to get the very best out of their training. Contact us today to find out more.