last updated March 3, 2021

Fitness is an exercise in stress management

by Rob Arthur

Last week we explored the idea of stress being any threat to or deviation from homeostasis – the conditions our bodies maintain to ensure survival and reproduction – and covered a couple of examples of how our bodies are equipped to respond, and even adapt, to different stressors.

Thus, stress might not always necessarily always a bad thing, and can be considered beneficial or even essential to fitness and optimal health in some contexts.

So then how did stress get such a negative connotation, and how can we make sure that we’re hitting our stress “sweet spot”?

As a general statement, stress can be detrimental when our various stressors are too intense, too frequent, too persistent, or too numerous for our response and adaptation mechanisms to keep up.

To fully reap the benefits of stress, while minimizing the potential detriments, there are some things we need to consider, and you might start thinking of your efforts to get as healthy as possible as one big exercise in stress management.

To paint a picture of what this might look like, let’s consider some of the examples we covered last week.

Let’s look at training.

The adaptations we see after physically demanding tasks can result in physiological changes that, when repeated consistently, can result in improved body composition, greater strength, enhanced metabolic conditioning, and improved movement proficiency.

However, if we train at too high of an intensity, frequency, or volume, we may never allow our bodies to fully recover and adapt from each bout of training stressor – resulting in performance plateaus or even regressions.

Likewise, if we train at too low of an intensity, frequency, or volume, we may not be stressing our bodies consistently or significantly enough to promote adaptation, wasting our precious time.

Additionally, we must consider which stressors result in which physical adaptations, and how our own ability to adapt affects our training priorities

While beginners might more easily be able to concurrently develop their capacity for endurance sports like running while also increasing proficiency in the bench, squat, and deadlift, eventually progress in any one of these respective tasks may necessitate trade-offs with the others  due to time constraints, recovery capacity, and more focused skill development.

This will be highly individual, of course, as some of us may be able to excel in a variety of simultaneous athletic pursuits while others of us may need to be a bit more selective with our training priorities.

Even sitting at a desk all day in the absence of any physical exertion can be considered a stressor – promoting adaptation to a position of hip flexion, forward head posture, and constrained breathing capacity, while decreasing blood circulation, fat oxidation, lymphatic function, and proficiency in simple tasks like running, jumping, changing direction, and getting down up and down from the ground – contributing to overall physical degeneration.

If we select the right training modality for the outcomes we’re looking for, and implement our plan in a way that allows for not only stress and stimulation but also recovery and adaptation, we can see some pretty solid improvements in our physical fitness.

This same concept of stress management applies to energy regulation and nutritional status.

On one hand, a sustained overabundance of energy – a process more complex than hedonic pleasure or lack of willpower – can contribute to adverse metabolic conditions like obesity or insulin resistance.

Thus, for some of us there may be benefit in creating a sustained deficit between the energy we store from food and the energy we utilize for basic metabolic function and physical activity – a process more complex than “eat less, more” – in order to draw down internal reserves from fat mass and restore normal function of mechanisms like insulin sensitivity that might have been thrown out of whack by energy excess.

Similarly, fasting – implemented in a variety of ways – has been shown to promote cellular turnover, regenerate tissues and systems that are no longer working at full capacity, restore insulin sensitivity, and even possibly even extend lifespan.

On the other hand, sustained or severe energy scarcity – overly-restricting calories and/or excessively exercising (chronic cardio, boot camps, etc.) – might eventually result in breakdown of lean mass, down-regulation of cellular repair, immune, and reproductive systems, and diversion of physiological resources towards those processes more immediately critical to survival like breathing, circulation, and cognitive function.

Likewise, too much or too little of certain nutrients can have negative consequences.

For example, insufficient iron might contribute to fatigue, headaches, heart palpitations, or brittle fingernails, whereas iron overload might result in intestinal damage or liver failure.

Some nutritional stressors – like artificial trans fats, for example – provide little, if any benefit, promote disease if present in our diets in significant amounts, and are probably best avoided all together.

Furthermore, stressors do not act in isolation, and our bodies only have the capacity to support so many stressors at any given time.

For those of us for whom athletic performance is a priority, inadequate nutrition – a blanket term that could mean a variety or specific situations – can prevent recovery and adaptation from even the most well-designed and implemented training strategy.

For those looking mainly to lean out a bit, many of us are able to restrict food intake and dial up physical activity for a while in order to shed some excess body fat, but if these efforts are thrown on top of sleep deprivation, professional or relational problems, or other mental/emotional stress, we might end up creating a hormonal environment that favors fat retention (or storage) and muscle breakdown.

The point of all this is to say that stress is not necessarily bad or good, but can be either or both, depending on how we manage it – not only in terms of individual stressors, but also in the context of our overall stress load and our own individual capacities for recovering from and adapting to them.

Our age, sex, genetics, and health history all play a role in our own individual responses to different stressors, so some experimentation and introspection will be required.

We’ll explore different kinds of stressors and how to go about managing them in future posts, but for now you might consider where your own stressors lie on the “good stress, bad stress” spectrum, and what role they may be playing in your overall stress load.

How are you doing in terms of stress management efforts, and in what areas might you want to start dialing things up or down to start promoting the adaptations you’re after?

Until next time, have a most excellent day!


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