And that’s just a few of the most common symptoms. Given how overwhelming stress can be and how many of us struggle with it, it’s no wonder that articles about overcoming stress are so commonly posted at CE.
Despite the number of helpful resources we already offer, there are still many things to consider when it comes to stress. In the hopes of living a healthy life, many of us depend on one tool – working out – and it’s no secret that committing to a workout routine can do wonders for your health physically, mentally, and dare I say even spiritually. What may be a secret to some is that if you are dealing with stress while at the gym it may just be sabotaging your workout.
Here are 6 ways that stress can mess up your workouts:
1. Stress Impacts Your Concentration
We all have the ability to focus our attention on one of two things: what’s going on internally and what’s going on externally. Working out is a practice that occurs externally and requires external focus, while stress is an internal process that draws all of your attention inward. Given that all forms of exercise, whether it be time at the gym or playing a sport, require your full attention to be done properly, it only seems logical that internally demanding stress would impact your ability to do that.
A great example of this is the difference you see when watching a professional sport, such as basketball. In the same game you can have a rookie – caught up in his head worrying about performing up to his expectations – playing against a conditioned veteran like Lebron James, who in my opinion epitomizes focus in sport, and each players’ performance clearly reflects their mental state.
A study published in the July 2014 Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research revealed that stress, under every analysis conducted, was associated with slower muscle recovery – leading researchers to suggest that individuals be more mindful of observing proper rest time if working out while stressed.(2) Given that consistency is important when working out with a goal in mind, giving a stressed body adequate rest can be difficult to accomplish.
In another study conducted by the Yale Stress Center, undergraduate students looked at stress’ impact on recovery time with just one high intensity exercise. The study found that the students with the lowest stress levels had regained 60% of their leg strength one hour after the workout by comparison to 38% amongst those with the highest stress levels.(3)
Whether it be to lose weight, gain muscle, or develop cardiovascular endurance, we all have an end goal that drives many of us at the gym. When first starting, having these goals can be pivotal in helping us commit, however as time passes these goals can also become detrimental, serving as a means of comparison if we aren’t attaining our desired results. A study conducted by Finnish researchers revealed that stress may be one of the factors impacting your ability to be “successful” (I put the word in quotations only because the definition in this case varies for all of us) when working out.
The study was conducted upon 44 individuals starting a new cycling regimen, and found that those with the highest stress ratings experienced the least substantial improvement in VO2 max (how much oxygen your body uses during a workout) over a 2-week period.(4)
A study out of Yale conducted on 103 healthy adults who had experienced major life stresses within the previous year concluded – through the use of MRIs – that stress depletes the gray matter in your brain.(5) A depletion in gray matter is known to affect emotion, self-control, and heart rate, three important factors when it comes to working out. The less emotional resources you have the more likely you are to become overwhelmed by the workout process, especially if working towards your end goal seems distant and effortful.
Although stress itself has not been found to cause injury, stress is thought to increase the risk of injury if the individual has a difficult time focusing or increased muscle tension due to the stress.(6) Given that so much of the workout process, especially in regards to weight training, requires proper form and attention to detail, it only seems natural that stress would increase the likelihood we perform the exercise in a manner more likely to injure us.
As outlined in point number 1, stress is internal while exercise is external, and the more internal focus our stress demands the less external focus we have to ensure that what we are doing is being done correctly. According to the sports injury bulletin:
“Past research has seen the relationship between athletic injuries and psychological factors as essentially stress-related. In this sense, stress is predicted to produce increased state anxiety and consequently alterations in attentional focus and muscular tension… Stress can cause attentional narrowing which results in important peripheral cues being missed.”
Much like anxiety, stress can be incredibly overwhelming to experience, so much so that the idea of staying committed to something seemingly “optional” (such as working out) can easily be cast aside. Researchers out of Yale University took the time to go through all studies relating stress to exercise habits and found that the majority outlined subjects opting to be sedentary rather than active when stressed. In fact, participants were found to be 21% less likely to work out during times of stress.