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Stress & Exercise

April is National Stress Awareness Month and hopefully we can use social media positively (for once) to raise awareness of the negative impact stress can have on many of us.

According to womenshealth.gov website, women are more likely to report symptoms of stress than men! And given 74% of UK adults have felt at the point of not being able to cope due to stress in the past year, that is a lot of women!

I always use to think stress was something that affected other people. Yes I was aways busy. But I somehow managed to fall into that trap of convincing myself business and stress were unrelated.

Busy ness to Burnout

 Since setting up my business in 2013 (with a newborn baby and toddler) I think I have always been busy. Too busy actually. At the time, the main entrepreneurs I looked up to, all promoted this concept of to be successful meant you had to be busy, survice on less sleep and work harder than everyone else. It is only now I see how unhealthy this mindset is and how much of a negative influence this had on me in the early days.

I read a really interesting article on Arianna Huffington and how she had become so busy that she passed out at her desk from lack of rest. She woke up in a pool of blood with her daughter standing next to her. This was her wake up call to prioritise rest and work/life balance.

It is important to note that not all stress is bad. Everyone experiences a certain amount of stress on an almost daily basis, and it cannot be completely eliminated. Stress becomes a problem when too much is experienced, and it has a negative impact on behaviours, relationships, and health. 

Exercise & Stress

My go to “stress management” tool has always been exercise. Not only do I really enjoy being physically active, but I also feel the endorphin rush and the physical benefits following a workout when I am feeling “stressed”. Its not just me either. the research on the benefits of exercise in relation to managing stress is pretty good! A review of research found that even a single exercise session can have an immediate stress-busting effect. Another review found that a regime of 10 to 30 minutes of exercise is sufficient for significant mood improvements. Another year-long study concluded that the benefits on mental health are long term too following regular exercise.

However, what I think many people (including me) sometimes forget is that Exercise is a form of (physical) stress.

Stressful Exercise

Although we know that exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators. This si great and this is how it was serving me for many years before starting my business.

However, there can come a point when exercise actually started to exacerbate stress. This is usually when you are already experiencing an existing cortisol imbalance due to many stressful things going on in your life at that time. For me, this was the “busyness” and “stress” of having a new baby, starting a business and worrying about financial stability during what is already a stressful time.

Seriously, when I look back,  I wonder why I thought setting up a business with a newborn was ever a good idea?

Is there an exercise that is best?

Although it is different for everyone. We can make a pretty good assumption that endurance exercise is going to increase the amount of time your body is under physical stress. Therefore increasing the levels of cortisol in our body for a longer period of time. When I was “stressed” I was choosing to do one of two types of exercise; Running or HIIT. I chose these because I felt like I could clear my head and switch off. Or Hiit allowed me to push myself physically and feel like id worked out hard after a session.

What I wasn’t considering was that when I was doing either an intense or endurance workout. I was significantly spiking my cortisol levels when I was already at a high-stress period in my life. It is pretty much like trying to put out a fire with fuel—it was making the situation worse.

Initially I didn’t really notice too big a problem and just continued doing what I’ve always done. It wasn’t until I started to notice that I wasn’t seeing the benefits of exercise any more. In fact, I was seeing the opposite! I was experiencing a few health issues, weight gain and at the time as I was approaching 40, put it all down to “peri menopause.”

Finding your Fitness

Having done some sessions with a hormone specialist (who I highly recommend). I realised, that the thing I thought was “stress busting” was actually adding to my stress and having a negative impact on me both physically and mentally.

I was absolutely devasted in thinking that I would no longer be able to run or do HIIT style training. Actually, that’s a lie, I absolutely hate running so was made up to have a legitimate excuse not to do it anymore.

On a serious note though, having always been someone who loved HIIT, kickboxing and intense style workouts. I suddenly ended up in a position where I needed to take a break. Not from exercise, but from such high intensity. Initially I resigned myself to thinking id never enjoy working out again. I mean who actually enjoys yoga! (well actually me now!!)

I tried all kinds of different types of training including variations of yoga, pilates, calisthenics and resistance training . The key was finding a balance that worked for me.. It was important to find a way to make exercise a key part of my life again, without it being a stressor (in the bad sense). I noticed changes in my mood, weight and energy levels within a short space of time and although I could probably still do the running and HIIT. I have actually realised that at this point in my life, I have found a new fitness and am really enjoying it.

Claire x

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