Is Exercise a Stress Reliever or Stress Amplifier?

A few years ago I read the book “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” by Robert M. Sapolsky.  Other than the author having a great Polish-sounding name, I read it because it’s all about human stress and recovery.  And it explains why – you guessed it – people get ulcers but (most) animals don’t.  But after 300 pages I came away with one glaring fact: I'm going to die early from chronic stress.

Great bedtime reading, right?

While I’m only half joking, my mistake was not in the decision to read this book.  Instead it was reading it too early in my career.

There was a time I saw the exercise-stress relationship in typical meathead fashion: a stress reliever and nothing more.  Periods of life are going to be tough and hectic anyway, so why not train hard?  I wasn't ready to accept an opinion other than the one I had - a side-effect of being young, naive, and watching one too many YouTube videos.  I'd even say this about my younger self:

In truth, the combination of working with some incredibly stressed clients AND Sapolsky's work is what really changed my mind.  That doesn't mean I've "gone soft," as my younger self would have thought.  But as I now tell many of my clients, when you think about stress and the human body it's easiest to imagine it as a bank account.  

When you're resting, your "rest and digest" parasympathetic response is depositing money into your account.  If you're stressed, the famous "fight or flight" sympathetic response withdraws from that account.  Pretty simple, right?  But what happens when that fight or flight response is unknowingly withdrawing your account into the red? 

We can all recognize big stressors when they occur – sickness or death of a loved one, tight work deadlines,  constant worrying about Donald Trump actually being President, etc.  But we’re usually not great at recognizing many of the other causes of stress – not getting enough sleep because of young kids or work schedules, unhealthy eating and drinking habits, and some forms of exercise.  Our minds may not recognize the latter situations as stressful, but our bodies don't know the difference.

You’ve probably heard this story before.  Overworked and overstressed, Person A decides to take up running as a stress reliever.  They decide to sign up for a marathon because the training will keep them accountable and provide a constant outlet. However, after a few months Person A is usually injured.  We find out that not only were they running 3-4 times a week, but they thought all that running gave them permission to eat whatever they wanted.  Instead of relieving their stress they compounded their stress with.....more stress.  That's a lot of stress!

What could've Person A done differently?  We know there's merit behind using workouts as a stress reliever.  The question lies not in the means but in the intensity.

If you're stressed at work, dependent on caffeine, or have a ton going on in your life, training hard should not be the priority.  By all means still get exercise but switch your running to "nose breathing only."  Yes, that means only breathing through your nose for the entire duration of your run.  If it's a max effort deadlift day, then switch to 50-60% of your max and focus on technique and bar speed. When you start crossing the threshold of "easy" to "hard" you're making your stress reliever into a stress amplifier.

The clients that have had the most success in training have been those that put an extra emphasis on sleep, recovery, and limiting stress elsewhere in their life.  Coincidence?  Nope.  It’s just science.