Exercise relieves stress, and, golly, do I look forward to that release after a long day in surgery or at the clinic, but recent research indicates that exercise and stress should be combined with some caution.
This occurs because exercise itself is stress. Experts such as my colleague, Max Testa, M.D., actually define exercise as stress - a stress that stimulates your body to adapt by becoming more fit. Athletes who continually pile on too much work stress, commute stress, financial stress, dieting stress, holiday stress, sleep stress and family stress on top of their exercise stress find they experience more colds, muscle tears, joint pain, arthritis, even osteoporosis. More recent research (published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, January 2009) reveals that athletes worn down by other stressors reach a point of physical exhaustion much sooner, and stop exercising 15 percent earlier, on average, than they would normally.
More important, the study's co-author, Samuele Marcora, Ph.D. in exercise physiology at the University of Wales-Bangor in the United Kingdom, told the London Telegraph that athletes in the study also perceived "exercise to be more difficult despite physiological responses considered normal during exercise." If you are trying to stay fit while also maintaining a career, family, home, social life and so on (and what non-elite athlete isn't?), this means you are bound to hit performance potholes. Knowing this is crucial because we find that people too often think a dip in performance indicates that they are not cut out for exercise. Read: they give up.
The truth is we are all cut out for exercise. Here are some pointers to make exercise a habit that dovetails well with the ups and downs of life stresses:
- Don't skip exercise when stress levels elsewhere in your life are topping out. Exercise helps lower the production of stress hormones and, according to research done at the Mayo Clinic, also counteracts your body's natural stress response.
- Instead, map not only the type of exercise but also the minimum and maximum amounts of exercise you plan to do on a calendar in advance. When stresses start to pile up, opt for the minimum workout.
- Reduce other stressors contributing to the sum total of stress in your life. Eat nutritious food, get enough sleep, and when you're hosting your out-of-town relatives for the holidays, don't volunteer to take on that big end-of-the-year project at work. Or vice versa.
- Clear up small problems in your life as well. Professional athletes often channel their energy into performing at a maximum level by cleaning up their finances, their house, their car, their locker, their gym bag - whatever might relieve their mind - as part of their preparation.
- When exercise performance is your priority - say, at an Olympic trial - clear your calendar of unnecessary social, family and work obligations. To be at your best physically, you cannot afford to stress yourself in other ways.
- Finally, on those inevitable days when you manage to wedge a workout between a flooded laundry room and an IRS audit, chalk up any poor performance to reality. It happens to all of us. Learn from it by noting the details in an exercise journal so that you can pinpoint the stresses that most drain your ability to exercise, and you can plan better next time.
( Eric Heiden, M.D., a five-time Olympic gold medalist speed skater, is now an orthopedic surgeon in Utah. He co-authored "Faster, Better, Stronger: Your Exercise Bible, for a Leaner, Healthier Body in Just 12 Weeks " with exercise performance physician Max Testa, M.D., and DeAnne Musolf. www.heidenothopaedics.com)