Exercise & Stress: How should you workout when stressed?

Ah, stress. That lovely feeling we get from time to time when life decides to throw you some curve-balls, knuckle-balls, or maybe ALL the balls at once. You're left juggling your social, home, and work life while trying to stay on top of your health and fitness game.

Sound familiar?

If you said no, I call BS. So the actual question is this. When you're under a lot of pressure or stress, what should your workout look like?

Do you need to:

- push harder?

- take a step back?

- change it up?

- not workout at all?


We all respond to stress differently

My inspiration for this post comes from the past 8-10 months of my life. While I'm sure some of you will read this and think "hmm, that doesn't sound like too much" others will read it and think "dang, girl you've been busssy." We all perceive, respond, and react differently to stressful situations.

Being a highly Type-A personality (which is a blessing and a curse), I like to be ahead of the game at all times. I've got my lists, deadlines, reminders, and daily tasks scheduled to a T. I naturally put a lot of pressure on myself to succeed. Any Type-A's out there that can relate to the madness?!

Up until about 8 months ago, keeping up with work and life was pretty manageable. 

Let me preface this story: Most of these things are good life changes. I'm not ignorant enough to think this will be the busiest or most stressful time of my life. Simply highlighting some lessons learned in hopes that you can take something away too!

It seems as soon as I got engaged last year (woohoo!) everything went into high speed mode. We were already planning a couple trips that took rigorous planning, so wedding planning (a part-time job) also got thrown in that mix.

Top that off with buying a house, starting a business, getting into a serious mountain bike accident, having a mentally demanding career... oh and trying to still maintain my mental, physical, and social health.

Weekdays were for work, weeknights were for wedding planning, and weekends were for adulting (aka catching up on laundry, cleaning, and all the things we neglected during the week).

For me, this was a lot. And I let some balls drop, which was uncomfortable.

My fitness level was an area I saw a significant difference during this time, both good and bad. While my strength and endurance slightly decreased, it forced me into the uncomfortable realm of trying something new.

As the demands took a toll on my energy level, my normal 5am wake-up call was getting harder to maintain. Sleep was really what my body was asking for. My 5am workout turned into a 7am workout or sometimes didn't happen. Other days I didn't have the desire to strength train (something I love) so I took the pup on a long walk or tried some peaceful yoga instead.

Did I feel guilty at first? Of course. I thought I was just getting lazy and making excuses. When I truly tuned in to what was going on around me and inside me, I was able to take that step back and feel good about it.

Don't fight what your body is telling you.


Impact of stress on the body

Since exercise is already a form of stress on the body, it's normal to feel hesitant to exercise when you're under a ton of pressure from life. You may feel sluggish, unmotivated, or even a little guilty.

So what actually happens in the body when you're under stress?

When you're under stress (from excessive exercise or outside factors) your stress hormone, cortisol, rises. This causes all kinds of things to happen:

  1. Your cravings for salty, fatty foods increase

  2. You feel more tired and sluggish

  3. Chronic stress can increase fat storage around the mid-section

  4. Muscle breakdown can happen

But wait, isn't exercise supposed to DECREASE my stress?

The answer is both yes and no. If you're over-training (training at a high intensity with very little recovery), you will experience some of the affects above due to consistently high cortisol levels.

If you normally workout pretty hard, you may need to take a step back when you're experiencing stress. When you find an intensity level or activity that feels good to you, it can be a major stress reliever.


5 tips on working out when you're stressed

OK. So I've shared my story and we've also talked about the ugly things that can happen to the body when you're under stress. How do we manage this so we can keep our life together??

1. Evaluate your current state

Sit down and check in. Stop to listen to your thoughts. How have you been consistently feeling?

If you notice you've been skipping your workouts or making poor food choices, ask yourself why.

The goal here is to pinpoint what is triggering your stress or lack of motivation so you can move forward with a plan.

2. Take 1 SMALL action step

Yep, just one. It can be tempting to make major changes. When we take too much action all at once, it can be overwhelming and land us right back in square 1.

Based on your answer from #1, what could you do to work around this? If exercise and food is truly important to you but you're not succeeding in this area right now, what can you change?

Too busy?  Take 1 thing off your plate.

Not motivated?  Get a Coach or try something completely new.

Too tired?  Adjust your schedule to involve more recovery and sleep. Try some energizing yoga or light walking.

3. Schedule in FUN

This is mayyybe the most important thing.

If you're that Type-A personality, like me, you're naturally inclined to get in the FOCUS ZONE until all tasks are complete. It can feel like a waste of time to have fun (red flag, people!). Trust me when I say that your sanity, and people around you, with thank you.

It sounds like a joke, but you may need to schedule in FUN. Go to a trampoline park, find a new metropark, take a painting class with a friend, go to a sporting event or concert.

Do whatever you have to do to alleviate that stress from time to time, even if you have to schedule it in. Don't feel guilty about that.


4. Adjust as needed

Be flexible enough with yourself to adjust when you need to.

Some days you may be able to bang out your normal strength workout or long run. Other days you may need to take a step back, especially if you are mentally drained.

Don't force a workout when your body is telling you no.

A big part of this is developing a good sense of intuition. Learn to notice the difference between listening to what your body needs vs. making excuses.

If you decide your workout just isn't for you today due to X,Y,Z factors, then stand behind it without guilt and have confidence that you'll be back at it when you're ready.

5. Just keep moving

Just keep moving, just keep moving, moving, moving...

Simple, yet effective. Also easy to forget.

Remember that EVEN THOUGH you may need to take a step back in your workouts during a stressful time of life, the little things still count.

It's tempting to fall into the all-or-nothing mindset of "well, I don't have time for my normal 60 minute workout so it just won't be the same."

If you have 20 minutes, you can still DO IT effectively. A quick jog, some bodyweight strength circuits, or even desk exercises all count!

Re-frame your thinking and find a few quick, go-to workouts when you're in a pinch.

Further reading: Beating Perfectionism

Free bodyweight workout plan: Bodyweight Badass

Until next time, tribe. Keep Moving!