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Exercising When You're Stressed

Updated: Jul 27, 2020

Are you experiencing unusually high levels of stress right now?

While the typical response to stress is downing a bottle of wine or eating a tub of ice cream while watching reality TV, some people turn to exercise to blow off some steam.

But what is the role of exercise as it relates to stress? Are there special considerations we must account for when exercising during stressful times?

Interestingly, exercise itself is technically a form of stress, but this type of stress is known as “eustress” because of its positive benefits. You’ve probably experienced the release of endorphins during a run or the satisfaction of pushing through a tough workout.

Aerobic exercise reduces the biological response to psychological stress and is associated with euphoria (think runner's high). Strength training allows you to overcome physical obstacles and leaves you feeling empowered. It’s clear that working out can elevate your mood, lift your spirits, and help you become more resilient.

That being said, there is an upper limit when it comes to accumulating stress—regardless of whether it’s the good or bad kind. If you’re dealing with emotional stress and sleep deprivation, for example, adding a high-intensity workout to the mix will likely overload your system.

Your body needs to be in balance in order to function properly. The nervous system goes into overdrive when it’s dealing with work, problems, and responsibilities without the necessary rest to bring the system down to a healthy baseline.

What to do about it

Don’t worry, I won’t tell you to meditate or take up Yoga (although both of those may certainly help). I’m aware that most of you reading this enjoy the challenge of a tough, high-intensity workout. The good news is that you don’t have to stop training hard—you just have to balance your levels of stress with the intensity of your workouts.

Vary your workout intensity throughout the week. For example, your split could be something like this:

  • Heavy strength training 3x/week

  • Aerobic exercise 2x/week

  • Mobility & stretching 1-2x/week

Save the heavy strength days for when you feel most energized and recovered. It’s ok to change your weekly schedule around to account for your current physical status.

If you can’t rearrange your training due to your schedule, modify your effort based on your energy levels. Take advantage of days when you’re well-rested to push hard and train to failure. On days where you feel particularly stressed, stick to higher repetitions and lower intensities.

Remember that recovery is just as important as the training itself for making progress and avoiding burnout. Making time to rest and relax should not be a luxury that you experience on rare occasions—it should be habit that you practice regularly.

You may not be able to control many of the things that add stress to your life, but you can become more resilient by strategically setting up your exercise and recovery regimen.


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