Exercising after a long day can be a great way to blow off steam and clear your head. But starting a high-intensity workout when you’re feeling super stressed can actually undermine your efforts. A study in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology found that mental fatigue negatively affects physical performance. Because your cognition and muscles are both controlled by your anterior cingulate cortex, when your brain is already tired before you start exercising, there’s a good chance your muscles may be too.
This isn’t to say working out after a stressful day is a total no-no. It’s only an issue if you’re chronically stressed and regularly starting and ending your workouts feeling pooped.
Here are six things to know about stress and exercise:
- Stress increases muscle tension. Because this has a negative affect on motor control, our risk of injury increases. It also slows down how quickly our tissues repair themselves leading to longer recovery times.
- Stress hinders concentration. This means the more complicated the task (team sports, for example) the worse your performance. Lack of focus can also lead to more injuries.
- Stress can affect our vision. Chronic, high levels of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol can cause blurry vision and disrupt hand-eye coordination.
- Stress hinders progress. A study in a Huffington Post article showed that out of regular exercisers, those who reported the highest stress levels showed significantly less improvement over a two-week period than those who were not stressed.
- Stress makes it harder to lose weight. Our primary stress hormone, cortisol, can lead to packing on extra (and stubborn) pounds around the midsection. Stress has also been shown to increase food cravings and the risk of depression.
- Stress is a serious de-motivator. People living high-stress lives tend to be more sedentary and, according to multiple studies, over 30% less likely to workout regularly.
So, what can you do?
Listening to your body and paying attention to your energy level is a great way to gage what kind of exercise is right for you on any given day. When you’re feeling more stressed than usual, consider more gentle, meditative options like yoga, pilates, swimming, hiking or walking, which help calm your nervous system rather than revving it up. And if you finish your workout feeling totally exhausted, you’ll know you’ve pushed too hard and to back off a bit tomorrow.
While there’s no magic wand that will instantly eliminate stress, there are things you can do to manage it. Here are a few simple ideas: practice deep breathing, start a mini-meditation practice (5 minutes when you wake up and 5 minutes before you go to sleep) and learn to say no to some social and work events to make more room for the things you love. Taking care of yourself in these small ways will keep you healthier and happier in the long run.
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