If your stress levels are at an all-time high, and have been for some time now, it’s reasonable to think you should take a break from exercising. Lack of time and a fuel tank that’s on empty most days is enough to make anyone feel that way.
However, avoiding exercise altogether may not be the best solution. In fact, being completely sedentary can exacerbate stress-related problems.
Rather, the aim should be to establish a middle ground by balancing restorative exercise such as yoga and Pilates, with quality nutrition and rest. But before we get there, it helps to understand what’s going with your body – particularly your adrenals – when you’re experiencing prolonged stress.
Stress and your adrenals
Your adrenal glands are about the size of a walnut and sit on top of each kidney. Their main purpose is to enable your body to deal with stress from every possible source, ranging from injury to work and relationship problems.
It is through the actions of the adrenal hormones, such a as cortisol and adrenaline, that your body is able to mobilise its resources to escape or fight off danger (stress). In a more primitive society that would mean being able to run away quickly, fight or pursue an enemy (the fight or flight response).
In today’s society, however, these same responses are triggered by circumstances such as a difficult boss, over exercising, family arguments, financial problems, too little sleep, infections, food sensitivities, or substance abuse.
Under constant stress your adrenals are forced to produce an excessive amount of cortisol over a significant period of time, which can lead to adrenal exhaustion. At this point your body may have difficulty responding and adapting properly to the stressors it may once have been able to tolerate, resulting in symptoms such as:
- difficulty sleeping despite being fatigued
- mild anxiety or nervous tension
- poor memory
- difficulty recovering from workouts
- poor immune health
- physical and mental exhaustion resulting in low exercise tolerance, poor recovery and the possible risk of injury
Tailoring training to manage an overly stressed body
Physical and mental exhaustion can impact many facets of your life including your training capacity. While minimising the negative effects of prolonged stress, training should ideally focus on:
- Maintaining muscle mass by lifting appropriate weights: Excessive cortisol can lead to muscle weakness so it’s important to combat this with some weight lifting. If your previous strength training goal was to lose body fat, your workouts would be high volume (repetitions) with short rest periods. However, when dealing with adrenal issues, you will want to lower the volume (e.g. 2-3 sets instead of 4-5 sets) and have longer rest periods between to minimise the cortisol response. Working with a personal trainer who can develop a specific program for you, is recommended.
- Reducing high intensity training: Many people dealing with adrenal issues are also trying to maintain a healthy weight, so they are inclined to do long, intense cardio workouts or high-intensity training. This however, will only serve to increase the body’s stress response. Instead low intensity exercise such as walking is recommended. Studies show that walking (especially in nature) can help restore cortisol balance.
- Good nutrition and adequate rest: Every main meal should contain a whole protein (meat, fish, eggs, dairy, beans or lentils), a healthy fat (most proteins contain fats, but you can add nuts, olive oil or avocado for variety), and green vegetables. Eating at regular times throughout the day will also support your adrenal glands. Although uninterrupted sleep may be difficult, aim to get at least 7-9 hours of rest each day and stick to a regular sleep routine. Also, be sure to incorporate recovery days into your exercise routine according to your body’s needs.
- Mind-body exercises: Aim to include practices such as meditation and yoga in your weekly routine. Both practices have been shown to have a positive impact on cortisol levels, and promote feelings of wellbeing.
- Additional adrenal support: You may consider some natural support with a practitioner prescribed supplement such as Adreno Restore Plus. Adreno Restore Plus contains clinically trialled KSM-66 Ashwagandha, which has been shown to improve the stress response, mild anxiety and support healthy cortisol levels in healthy individuals. It also contains high quality standardised Licorice extract, traditionally used in Western herbal medicine as a tonic to support adrenal function, as well as Siberian Ginseng to improve stress adaptation.
Speak to your healthcare practitioner to determine if this product is right for you. Always read the label. Use only as directed. This product contains zinc which may be dangerous if taken in large amounts or for a long period. Supplements should not replace a balanced diet. If symptoms persist consult your healthcare practitioner.
References available on request