We all go to the gym or undertake exercise programmes with the aim of achieving one or more results. These generally include muscle gain, increased metabolism, fat loss, improved aesthetics, pain reduction, injury rehabilitation, improved stamina, strength, performance, increased energy, well being and overall health

However, more often than not, results like these are not easily achieved despite regular visits to the gym. But why is this ? Its often due to imbalances in our lifestyle and the root cause of the problem in many cases is stress.

Stress has a significant effect on our nervous system. You may have heard sayings before that link stress and your nerves together: “my nerves are frayed, you’re getting on my nerves and my nerves can’t handle this!”

The amount and type of stress determines which branch of the ANS (autonomic nervous system) is activated. Too much stress, whatever the cause, can activate the sympathetic (SNS, fight or flight) branch of the autonomic nervous system causing a release of catabolic (breakdown) hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline in the body. These will elevate the heart rate and blood pressure, divert blood toward the muscles but away from the digestive organs and, if the effects are prolonged, they can cause disturbances in metabolism leading to a reduction in the uptake of dietary protein and an increased breakdown of protein in muscle. To counterbalance these negative effects on metabolism we must activate the parasympathetic (PNS, growth + repair) branch of the autonomic nervous system which increases the production and release of anabolic (building) hormones such as growth hormone, insulin and sex hormones like testosterone and estrogen, all of which increase the formation of muscle protein and enhance muscle growth which in turn leads to an increased metabolism, less body fat, improved body shape etc

It works like a see-saw; if there’s too much overall stress, we activate the SNS and catabolic hormones are released causing breakdown of muscle and a slower metabolism. This suppresses the PNS and the release of anabolic hormones, limiting growth and repair.

Conversely, by reducing stress, the PNS is activated and anabolic hormones are released we promote growth and repair, increasing metabolism and suppressing the SNS and consequently suppressing the release of catabolic hormones.

Stress is caused by a mixture of external and internal stressors. External stressors are things that stress the body from the outside such as sunlight, movement, injury, emotional trauma, chemicals, toxins. Internal stressors come from within the body and are most often the reaction to external stressors. They include fatigue, disease, nutrient deficiency, depressed immune system, hormonal imbalance

What we must recognise is that not all types of stress are bad and that some stress is actually good, in fact we need some stress to achieve. For example: By setting ourselves goals or objectives we create a stress which drives us to achieve our dreams which ultimately makes us happy. This sort of stress could be categorised as a good ‘mental/emotional’ stress.

Sometimes we need a little adrenaline or cortisol to increase our chances of survival. Its when we have too much overall stress that our hormonal levels go out of balance (too much SNS activation), desired results are no longer achieved and health problems start to occur.

Stress isn’t just falling out with your partner or an over-expectant boss. There’s all sorts of different forms of stress. For example:

Physical Stress is often the result of movement. Under or overtraining, repetitive movement, injury, demanding sports, physical jobs and bad posture can contribute to an excessive overall level of stress. Similarly, Mental or Emotional Stress can be caused by trauma or adversity, pressure at work, family problems, relationship issues, depression, loneliness etc

Nutritional Stress can be a result of eating incorrect macronutrient proportions, too much or too little food, dehydration, processed food, pesticides, sweeteners, trans fats, preservatives, colourings etc Furthermore, stress can be placed on the body from chemical, electromagnetic and thermal sources such as synthetic drugs, smoking and drinking, x-rays, radiation, mobile phones, televisions, computers, microwaves and even the sun !

stress diagram

So what are the typical signs of the sort of stress we should be considering, if we want to achieve optimal results from our training regime? Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you get less than 8 hours sleep per night?
  • Do you go to bed after 10.30pm most nights?
  • Do you have problems with the quality of your sleep such as being unable to fall asleep easily, have difficulty staying asleep, needing to go to the toilet a lot during the night or waking up feeling more tired than when you went to bed?
  • Are you tired and achy all the time?
  • Do you live and die by stimulants such as coffee?
  • Do you feel constant tightness in your shoulders and muscles?
  • Do you get several colds/coughs/sore throats per year?
  • Do you struggle to get results in the gym i.e. muscle gain, fat loss etc?
  • Do you perspire a lot?
  • Have you gained fat in the midsection despite watching your diet?
  • Have you experienced memory problems?
  • Do you have problems with depression or seasonal affective disorder?
  • Do you feel mentally stressed?
  • Do you rarely have time or energy for sex?

If you answer Yes to most of these questions, then the likelihood is that you have too much stress in your life and need to find a balance.

So how do we find balance and achieve optimal results ?

Many of the stressors which we might experience in life cannot be changed or reduced easily, such as relationship problems, workloads, emotional trauma, pollution, and the weather !

However, there is plenty we can do to find that balance which will counteract the ill effects of stressors.

Diet: identify your individual, genetically based nutrition and diet requirements. There is no one diet that is correct for everyone and therefore to achieve optimal health you must determine what is right for you. We are all different (like our fingerprints), so why should there be a single diet that works for all of us? If such a diet existed, then wouldn’t it have been discovered a long time ago? Nutritionally we should ensure that we eat the correct proportions of macronutrients and that our digestion and metabolism should be optimised and the amount of food ingested should be appropriate. You need to know which foods improve how you feel and which ones make you feel worse. This can be done by a technique called metabolic typing, by which you can discover your metabolic type and ideal macronutrient proportions (i.e. amounts of fat, carbohydrate and protein). The health benefits of any food are dependent upon the stimulatory or inhibitory effects on the biochemistry of any individual or ‘metabolic type’.

Sleep patterns: More anabolic (growth + repair) hormones are released once the sun has gone down but if we stimulate our bodies by eating late, or eating the wrong foods, drinking caffeine, watching TV until midnight or being in brightly lit rooms we don’t allow these hormones to be released and therefore suppress their effect. Consequently we stimulate further release of catabolic hormones.

Hydration: Needless to say water is the source of life. Our bodies are made up of somewhere in the region of 80% water. Not enough water can lead to all sorts of health problems. Ideally we should drink 0.033 litres of pure water per kg of body weight.

Exercise: More often than not people train with a vigour and intensity that is simply too much for our bodies to handle what with all the other stresses in our lives. Unless we reduce the other sources of stress its often more beneficial to do more varied and less intense forms of exercise like plenty of walking, yoga, swiss ball training and stretching. Work in instead of work out.

Rest and Recovery techniques: All work and no play can be hugely detrimental to several aspects of our health. Finding time to relax allows our bodies to repair and improve. If we don’t recover, all the exercise we do is pretty much pointless and we won’t achieve the results we’re after.

Injury and Illness rehab: Injuries and illness cause a significant stress to the body by sapping our energy and vitality. Without a balanced lifestyle, rehabilitation can be prolonged, limiting our capabilities in the gym and therefore our ability to achieve our desired results. An intelligently planned rehabilitative programme can break the vicious circle and allow us to get back on track.

Posture Improvement: Bad posture is a common problem nowadays with the majority of us spending too much time sat behind desks, or driving a car. This places a significant stress on the musculo-skeletal system. Improving our posture can reduce the amount of wear and tear our bodies experience, keeping our joints mobile, our muscles supple and strong.

There’s plenty more we can do to eradicate or counteract the stress we all have in our lives. If you’re interested in finding out more or having a consultation with someone who can guide you to a less stressful lifestyle, more efficient time spent exercising, a better understanding of health and an improvement in your overall balance, call Duncan Edwards Bsc(hons) on 0191 2399000.

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