Mastering the Art of Stress and Recovery, Part 1
Saturday, April 13, 2013
LifeTime WeightLoss in Metabolism, Stress, Tom Nikkola, cortisol, weight training program

When it comes to fitness and stress, there’s good news and bad news. According to Gallup, just over half of adult Americans claim they exercise at least three times per week, a number that’s slowly trended upward. That’s the good news. However, almost a quarter of Americans report they live with “extreme” levels of psychological stress, and more than half say they deal with health problems related to stress. There’s the bad news, of course. Based on the feedback we receive from members and on the popularity of our Stress & Resilience test, there’s no doubt that people across the health spectrum are concerned about their ability to manage stress. Are you among them?

Exercise can be great for helping to manage stress, which can lead to fatigue, burnout and exhaustion. When you understand how to be strategic with your exercise choices--and the choices you make between workouts--you can achieve health and fitness levels you may never have experienced before. However, when you see strategizing your workouts and recovery as just another task in an overburdened lifestyle, you’ll have a hard time achieving the goals you have in mind.

My goal in this series is to connect the 5 components of the programs we recommend for creating a healthy lifestyle: nutrition, exercise, movement, stress and sleep, and metabolism. Once you understand how these all interact and affect one another, you’ll be able to make better decisions about not only your exercise routine, but also the choices you make between each of your workouts, which is where the true magic and change takes place.

Today, we’re going to start with the way your body adapts to stress. If you understand how the adaptation process works, the choices you make about exercise, nutrition, sleep and stress, movement, and metabolism will likely change. You’ll see nuances and potential in your health routine you didn’t see before. You’ll have a better idea of when to push yourself and when to let your foot off the gas. You’ll appreciate how each choice will set in motion other impacts that reverberate into other health components.

Exercise, Stress and Adaptation

Whether we’re trying to develop mentally, physically or emotionally, we break new ground by facing stress, handling it, and then recovering from it. The technical name given to this process is the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). It was developed by Hans Selye as far back as the 1950s. You can read about the process in psychology books, self-help books, exercise and many other texts. GAS is a universal process for all types of stress we’re exposed to.

For the most part, I’ll be writing about GAS in the context of a fitness program. You’ll quickly see similarities to mental stress issues, however, like the way adrenal fatigue develops in the face of chronic emotional stress. Again, this is because, to the body, stress is stress. Physical, mental, emotional: stress within each area elicits a similar response in the body.

When your body encounters a stress it hasn’t experienced before, it first goes through an alarm stage. Think of the first time you did walking lunges, for instance. In the beginning, it was a movement your body hadn’t encountered before, and your muscles generated forces in ways they hadn’t done before. The Alarm Stage can last days to weeks. The Alarm Stage mainly involves two parts – 1) the stress and 2) the recovery process. Here’s the first important point to remember:

The severity of the stress to the body is not based on how intense the exercise is compared to other people. The severity of the stress is based on how intense the exercise (stress) is FOR YOU in your current condition.

If you start working out with a friend who’s been exercising five days per week for years, you can’t expect to handle the stress and recovery of that training frequency right out of the gates. You may need to limit yourself to one or two exercise sessions each week for the first few weeks to few months, depending on your level of fitness. (This may feel like a foreign concept, especially if you’ve absorbed the misguided message of certain sources like “The Biggest Loser” that suggest every day from Day 1 should be an endless boot camp routine.)

A single workout can cause damage to muscle tissue, a reduction in available energy sources, called ATP, and a general fatigue of the nervous system. The less prepared the body was for the workout, the more severe the stress will be. This principle is important for those who exercise regularly as much as for those who are just getting started. For those who’ve been exercising for quite some time, changing the type of exercise you do can be a major stressor as well.

If someone attempts to workout at the same level of performance before the body has recovered, his/her performance in that session won’t likely live up to the first performance level. This brings us to the second part of the Alarm Stage – recovery--as well as the second point to remember:

Your ability to recover between workouts depends on your metabolism and genetics, sleep quality, stress levels, nutrition, and your level of movement throughout the day.

Again, you can’t compare your ability to recover with other people. It’s not a competition, and there’s no judgement involved here. You’re dealing with naturally unique circumstances, and these must be what guide your decisions. You also can’t expect to recover well and improve your fitness level without addressing each of the factors that influence your recovery.

Assuming you provide the right environment for your body to recover, it actually achieves a state called supercompensation. Your body is pretty smart and doesn’t like to deal with unexpected stress. After you’ve done three sets of 20 walking lunges for the first time, it wants to be better prepared the next time around. With supercompensation, your body uses that pivotal recovery time to 1) build the right amount of muscle and supporting tissue and 2) prepare the nervous system to handle those three sets of 20 lunges with less relative effort the next time around. That’s why you have to do more lunges or carry some dumbbells subsequent times--if you’ve allowed for proper recovery.

When the exercise session is designed appropriately, sufficient time is allowed between workouts, and the right choices are made to optimize recovery, fitness and performance improvement as the graphic below depicts.

However, if enough time isn’t provided between stressors to recover, the body can regress. If this lasts too long, the repetitive stress and insufficient recovery can lead to over-training.

Over-Training or Under-Recovering

Interestingly, the process of developing adrenal fatigue is very similar. Adrenal fatigue is often related more to psychological stress, just as over-training is related to exercise or athletic performance. However, each can contribute to the other.

Someone dealing with a large amount of psychological stress, who takes on an exercise program, can quickly become mentally burned out. Someone who is on the verge of over-training and faces new challenges at work or home can find him- or herself in a state of over-training.

Let’s use the example of a Boot Camp program. Boot Camp is often a high-intensity, physically demanding exercise program. It can tap the reserves of the nervous system, cardiovascular system, muscular endurance system and the endocrine (hormonal) system. When an individual is in the right level of conditioning to start a boot camp program and allows adequate recovery between workouts, it can be an exhilarating way to exercise.

However, let’s say “Sue” decides to join her friends in the boot camp class they take part in five days per week. Traditionally, Sue has been more of a runner, though she only gets in a couple runs each week, which means she’s just been maintaining her fitness level for a while.

She joins her friends on Monday for class and has a blast. The competitive nature, the people, the new exercises--they’re all a blast. She comes back Tuesday, although she’s quite sore and stiff from the previous day. It takes a little while to get warmed up and moving, but she finds her groove and enjoys the class again. This process repeats through Friday, at which time she’s really feeling worn down. But the atmosphere is fantastic. She takes the weekend off and feels almost back to normal by Monday. She does boot camp again the next week. Though she isn’t as sore as she was the first week, she also doesn’t have quite the spark she did the first few days.

As time goes on, her body gets worn down. She get sick about six weeks into it as her immune system has become compromised. It’s her body’s way of forcing her to slow down. She takes the week off and is back at it with renewed vigor the next week.

What Sue doesn’t understand is that she isn’t ready for boot camp five days per week. If, instead, she would have started with just two days per week for the first month, then added another day the second month, and slowly worked her way up to five days per week, she could have gotten a lot out of the program. Instead, she prevented her body from recovering properly, and her performance regressed each week, like the graphic below.

From my own personal experience, I start to notice that I’m heading toward over-training based on my sleep, my performance and my enthusiasm for my workouts. With my sleep, I notice that I wake up more frequently during the night. Since I’ve been using my Zeo, I also notice a drop in REM and “deep sleep,” which is bad news because deep sleep is when the body recovers and REM is when the mind recovers.

My performance hits a plateau or regresses. I can’t do quite as many repetitions with the same weight, or I actually have to back off with the weight. It’s difficult to notice this with body weight movements but is quickly evident with dumbbells, barbells and machine-based movements. Finally, I notice that I begin to dread the effort my workout will require before it begins. Each person is different, but for me, these are signs that it’s time to change up my routine or look into other ways to improve my rate of recovery.

The Stress and Adaptation Cycle

Hopefully you’re beginning to see how exercise, nutrition and lifestyle factors all work together to create a cycle of stress and recovery that allows you to improve your fitness and health as well as help you manage your weight.

It sounds simple at first. Workout, recover and workout again. It’s easy when the workout is properly designed, and when you follow good nutrition and lifestyle habits consistently. The faster you can recover, the sooner you can do another workout and the faster your fitness levels improve.

In upcoming blog posts, we’ll get into the details of how to be smarter about your workout choices and how you can recover faster between them. Together, the five components of a solid program will allow you to make the progress you’re hoping for.

One caveat... The one piece we can’t control is genetics, which includes your age. If you’re in your 50s, you probably won’t recover as quickly as you could have in your 20s. That’s outside of your control, however. You do, however, get to make the choice every day about your nutrition, your sleep quality and stress levels, and your movement frequency. You also have the ability to check the health of your metabolism and can choose to follow an appropriate exercise program, or get help in designing one.

Exercise, Recovery and the Life Time Weight Loss / Life Time Training System

Once you understand how critical the recovery process is, it becomes obvious how important each component of a fitness or weight management program becomes.

If your goal is to lose weight, improve your endurance or even get bigger, faster and stronger, your exercise program should be an appropriately designed “trigger” for that change. Once your exercise input (stress) sends the signal, factors related to the recovery process will ultimately determine whether your body will accomplish the goal of that exercise session. As I mentioned, the real magic happens in the recovery periods. Learn to appreciate rest!

Next time, I’ll get into more detail on how your choice of exercise begins the process of stress and recovery. Then we’ll look at how you can take action to improve your ability to recover from workouts.

Reflect for a moment on your process. Have you ever pushed yourself beyond your ability to recover in the past? Do any of the examples above resonate with you? Share your thoughts or ask questions below.

Written by Tom Nikkola - Sr. Director of Nutrition & Weight Management

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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