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Monday
Nov052012

Stress, Resilience, and Removing Roadblocks

Do you ever wonder why workouts are tougher during weeks when the pressure is on at work?  Do you notice your will power isn’t as strong when you don’t get enough sleep?  Do you experience stronger salt or sweet cravings after a long day of stressful meetings?  These are puzzling patterns for many exercisers and amateur athletes alike, but with a little understanding of what’s at play, there are ways to keep the body and mind more resilient in the face of the various stressors piling up. 

Our bodies have a wonderful system in place to help us respond to our surroundings in a way that both allow us to survive and adapt with a higher level of resiliency.  I call this our “bounce-back” power.  However, this wonderful system has its limits and can also work against us if not properly nourished.  The system I’m referring to is our adrenal system; it’s perhaps our most impressive endocrine system and it’s closely linked to other important systems in our bodies as well.  In this and my next article, we’ll explore how the health of our adrenal system can make or break us.  We’ll also explore how to support its many functions to enhance our health, performance, and vitality. 

The adrenal glands are small, walnut-sized glands located atop our kidneys that have several vital functions for us.  As expected, they produce and release adrenaline and other “fight or flight” hormones such as epinephrine and norepinephrine which are vital for survival.  Essentially, these little wonder glands operate like batteries, lending their charge to us in times of higher demand – be it toughing out a workout, meeting deadlines, or merely surviving a crummy sleep pattern.  Just like batteries, however, these wonder glands can wear out and need consistent nourishment to recharge. 

The adrenals produce and release the infamous stress hormone cortisol as a method to help us maintain enough energy to adapt or respond to various stressors we encounter daily.  The main functions of cortisol are to support or increase blood sugar through a process called gluconeogenesis, or “new glucose making” by signaling the body to break down stored glycogen (glucose stored in muscles & our liver), amino acids (from muscle tissue), and (to a small extent) body fat.  The interesting thing is there are dozens of situations which may trigger our production and release of the catabolic hormone cortisol (catabolic refers to the overarching effect of cortisol to break down healthy tissue, as opposed to anabolic which means “building”). 

Among the major factors that keep our adrenals on high alert are psychological pressure due to work, school, or even the mental pressure an athlete feels when striving for weeks on end to achieve a personal best.  Add to that emotional “stress” one may feel from social relationships that may be put on the back burner to keep up with the aforementioned psychological stressors.  Our mental-emotional “environment” can be enough to put significant strain our tiny adrenals, and that’s before considering the laundry list of other factors placing demands on the adrenals (including but not limited to: traffic, a blaring alarm clock, caffeine, alcohol, sugar highs [and lows], stimulation from late night TV watching or computer use, modern life in general). 

Additional “stressful” factors most gym-goers and amateur athletes often place on themselves are mentioned in several other articles on this site and are the topic of conversation when Personal Trainers meet with members for consultations every day.   To be blunt, people generally work out way too hard in relation to their ability to “bounce back”.  We’ve been conditioned to burn as many calories as possible through the latest and greatest workouts.  In reality, this approach is often counterproductive or further tires us out, leaving us with virtually no energy reserves to respond or adapt to our training AND our lives simultaneously.   Whether it’s over-training or under-recovery doesn’t matter.  It’s imbalance and it needs to be addressed if we desire being strong and resilient for a years to come.

Are you still thinking you need to leave a puddle of sweat on the gym floor or else you’re wasting your time?  When was the last time you enjoyed your workout, or felt refreshed all day afterwards?  If that sounds like a foreign idea to you, read on as I’ll “troubleshoot” a few common case studies.

Case study #1: Exhausted Ernie

Ernie says he “eats pretty well” and enjoys exercising every day after work – where stress is high - but still can’t seem to lose the “flab” around his belly.  He doesn’t get it; he rarely leaves the gym until he burns at least 1000 calories on his heart rate monitor (a daily practice for years).  Usually, he’s famished when he gets home and eats anything in sight which usually includes chips & salsa (he just can’t get enough salt).  Ernie’s doctor is proud of him for exercising regularly despite his slightly elevated blood pressure.

After tearing into the tortilla chip frenzy, dinner tends to be small and just includes something easy like a bowl of cereal or maybe yogurt – because he’s pretty exhausted.  Shortly after, Ernie’s out like a light until he wakes suddenly on the couch remembering he needs to send one more important email before midnight and also needs to massage his calf muscles because they won’t stop cramping!  He barely remembers writing the email when he wakes up to a blaring alarm at 6:30am the next morning to rush off to work, grabbing a banana and his extra large coffee on the way out the door to trod through another day. 

What gives?  First of all, Ernie is wearing his resiliency thin but doesn’t recognize it.  In relation to the rest of the staff at work, his own family, and the people he sees in public he’s at least being active daily.  He wonders why he doesn’t feel much better than his sedentary counterparts.  He often responds to their comments about stagnant fat loss or chronic muscle and joint aches or even his erratic energy levels and mood with a “me too”.  Not to mention Ernie’s libido hasn’t been the same for a few years now, so he’s beginning to think this whole aging thing is catching up with him. 

Ernie’s never really seen nor experienced the value in personalizing his workout and nutrition (known as Healthy Way of Life around Life Time) and mainly gets his health advice from the 15-20 minutes of internet news updates he checks while he tries to get his mind revved for the workday.  He sees the same idea in several mutated messages, but the methods celebrities and countless reality show contestants use to fit into their skinny jeans involve crazy exercise regimens focused on calorie balance much like Ernie has practiced for years.  So why isn’t Ernie’s body responding to his efforts if he’s aligned with the calorie deficit mantra he reads & sees in popular media?

Ernie’s body is being bombarded from nearly every angle possible; psychological, physical, poor sleep, sub-optimal dietary nutrient supply & balance, and even mindset.  It’s merely trying to survive being “put through the ringer” day and night rather than thrive and keep its ability to remain resilient and perhaps procreate.  It’s a one step up, two steps back situation that isn’t just happening on Ernie’s fitness floor – look around and you’ll see it’s everywhere.

In Part 2 we’re going to take a look at how we can assess exactly what Ernie is doing to sabotage his health and fitness by collecting a small, but critical, set of data. Based on that data, we’ll be able to establish simple but effective solutions to get him on a custom path of real progress.

Written by Paul Kriegler, RD, CPT, CISSN, Life Time Fitness

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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