What springs to mind when we hear the term “stress”? For most of us, we think of heightened mental and emotional states, feelings of anxiety caused by too much work, fighting with friends or loved ones, financial situations, and a million other aspects of life. Sometimes we associate stress with muscle tightness or headaches, or an upset stomach, but these seem to be because of stress, rather than causing it. So what happens when we throw physical stress into the mix?
Interestingly, physical stress – caused by exercise or physical activity – can both alleviate and worsen our stress symptoms. Too much stress of any kind can overload our bodies. There are links between all types of stress and mental and physical health and wellbeing, ranging from being exhausted and cranky to the development of diseases like Type II diabetes or triggering latent mental illness like bipolar disorder. But stress is not all bad – it’s useful, in that it can motivate us to get things done instead of putting them off. So we want to find that fine line between good stress and overload.
Back in 1936, an endocrinologist names Hans Seyle came up with his General Adaptation Syndrome model to explain how the body reacts to any given stress, or level of stress.
If you look at the left side of the graph, we can see that some stress is necessary to get out of bed in the morning. A little more stress puts us into a healthy, productive state. Keep building on those stress levels though, and they become less than helpful. Whatever is causing your stress, you’ll now start feeling an increased levels of fatigue, procrastination, anxiety, depression, etc.
BUT – and this is a big but – even though our bodies recognize physical stress as it does any other stress, we can use the aftermath of it to our advantage. This is called supercompensation – where appropriately timed stress and appropriate recovery leads to the ability to handle more stress, better. And even though we are talking purely about physical stress here – again, from exercise or physical activity – when we give ourselves the appropriate stress and recovery, we bounce back so much better physically, mentally, and emotionally.
So how much is enough? If you’re just getting started with an exercise routine, having a day off between each workout day is a good starting point. It’s also really important to listen to your body. If you’re feeling particularly sore, or just that you need an extra day or two, take the extra time. That’s when you recover, get better, and get ready to handle the rest of life.