Stress affects different people in very different ways: one person can lose weight while another gains; one can become focused while another is left scattered; one’s motivation could be increased while another’s is completely zapped. For most people, stress has some extremely negative effects on the brain, body and your fitness goals. Low levels of stress in the body is beneficial for adrenaline and metabolism levels, but consistent periods of high stress should be dealt with as soon as possible. From your coordination to muscle retention and even your general health, there are a number of ways your body suffers during periods of high stress.
- Stress impairs memory
Have you ever felt so stressed that you can’t make a decision? Well, it turns out it’s a lot more than feeling frazzled. When stressed, our body releases cortisol, our natural stress hormone. This was perfect for our primate relatives, because it allowed our bodies to act quickly, preserve energy and was usually followed by a burst of adrenalin. Nowadays, stress is caused by personal reasons, work, family or friends, but has the same bodily response. One of the many effects of the repeated secretion of cortisol is the long-term impairment of your memory recall through damages to the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex.
Without realising, memory is a key tool in athletes and aspiring sports professionals. In order to reduce fatigue and improve performance over time, they have to be physically and mentally sharp. If your memory and decision making is suffering, as will your patience, motivation and processing speed.
- Stress affects your concentration
Along with memory, the effect of stress on your concentration can be extreme. Increased stress levels have shown to have damaging effects on your perception, mental focus and cognition. Basically, there are two forms of attention: internal and external. Stress internalises your concentration on things that are absent from the task at hand. As a result, it becomes much harder to focus on the external environment i.e. your workout.
- Stress impairs your coordination
Among other functions of the brain, stress can have some serious effects on your coordination. This key motor function is the interaction and communication between your nervous, skeletal and muscular system. When the communication between all systems are clear, coordination levels appear quick and agile. The effects of stress on this communication can be similar to that of injury, alcohol or drugs, blurring communication between the systems causing major issues performing previously familiar tasks such as lifting or pushing weights.
Stress can cause muscles to act more erratic, resulting in a higher number of involuntary movements e.g. twitching, shaking or jolting. It can often feel like clumsiness, involving problems with moving, holding or lifting items, so understandably, this is less than desirable for someone working out or who is highly active.
- Stress can slow your recovery
It’s common knowledge that a lack of sleep reduces muscle recovery and overall muscle growth, but did you know that this is mostly related to stress? When you restrict your body of basic needs (i.e. food, water or sleep) you can quickly switch to ‘stress mode’. Along with an increase in cortisol, stress can result in a reduction of muscle growth and a decrease in your metabolism among other things.
More stress – less energy – fewer gains!
- Stress increases weight gain
The result of weight gain during periods of high stress is the result of two processes:
- Firstly, the continuous release of cortisol has been shown to increase appetite, resulting in an often dramatic overall increase in daily caloric intake
- Secondly, the same chemical causes a rush of glucose from your tissues to be stored as fat. It’s in our DNA to store fat during periods of high stress (think back to our caveman era where stress usually meant a lack of food and harsh conditions, where increased fat would have been welcomed as it would allow us to survive).
- Stress can increase the risk of disease
When you’re stressed, a lot starts to happen in your body and to your brain. Throughout this process, your internal organs are also put at risk. Studies have shown that the increased levels of stress hormones in your body can cause an increase in “blood cholesterol, triglycerides and blood pressure; the common risk factors for heart disease”
What can you do
Getting 8-9 hours of sleep can dramatically decrease stress levels.
Reduce harmful substances
Alcohol, drugs, cigarettes and sugar are harmful to a healthy body, let alone a stressed one. Cut these vices and you’ll see a dramatic increase in mood and energy levels.
Declutter your life
Stress can start to be reduced from the simplest of changes in your daily schedule, your work life or even on your desk.
Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Increase gentle-moderate daily activity
If working out is essential for your peace of mind, instead of pushing your body, take it back a notch and simply increase the amount of daily activity i.e. walking to and from work, school or to the shops.
Increase your time outdoors
Take your lunch break outside or try to catch the sunrise at least a few times a week; the effects of sunlight and fresh air on your mind can be incredible.
Give your body a break
Stress is a sign to pull back, and taking a few days off from working out can actually bring more good to your body and mind rather than slugging through sessions.
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