Exercise can be a powerful tool for stress reduction, improving health & strength. Done right, it builds metabolic strength, flexibility. It can help with fat loss and it’s preventative of premature aging and disabling later years. However, there is a point where exercise – especially the more popular, more intense workouts – can become counterproductive.
Here is how to use exercise intelligently to prevent, reduce stress, restore balance and progress to a more robust metabolism.
It’s not that exercise is bad; it’s that a person’s metabolism can not tolerate certain types of exercise (intense) at certain times (usually in a time of heavy stress in the wake of long term chronic stress). Stress is not only mental, it’s also physical. Its everything – your whole lifestyle, and a lot of people have physical stress like digestive issues and sleep issues; think the sum total chronic stress on your metabolism (Total Body Stress).
We see this with high performance athletes who overreach into overtraining…or corporate professionals who burn the candle at both ends until they burnout. Exercise is not a cure-all, intense exercise can be too stressfull, especially for women with hypothyroid tendencies or menstrual irregularities.
This is especially pertinent to people with ‘adrenal fatigue’, or variations of ‘metabolic damage’, sluggish metabolism, those with a history of dieting, orthorexia, eating disorders and infertility. These unique forms of chronic stress are often coupled with high intensity workouts and can suppress metabolic function – add to that a new intense workout plan, and you can dig deeper into a mental & metabolic black hole.
A Fitness Continuum
I train clients along a continuum of fitness techniques from restorative to fitness to strength to high performance. From lower intensity on the left to higher intensity on the right, depending on a few things and it’s not entirely linear. People have different goals at different times and life is dynamic, ya know?
Along this continuum there are various goals, methods, techniques, programs, and philosophies; don’t get hung up on the brand names or details & differences. Instead, see it as an Antifragile Metabolic continuum (inspired by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile) to explain this spectrum of metabolic strength & flexibility and it’s relation to exercise:
When you are healthy, your body encounters the stressor of exercise, it recovers. Not only that, it rebounds and gets stronger from the stressor = Antifragile.
When you are unhealthy, your body encounters this same stressor, instead it depresses metabolic function, you lack resilience, you don’t recover well or rebound = Fragile.
Simply put: The higher your stress, the softer your workout. The lower your stress, the harder your workout.
Now it’s easy to misinterpret or misuse that, but it makes the point that some people are better off with a less intense workout for either a session, a week or a phase of restorative work.
In order to restore metabolic strength, robustness and flexibility, you need resilience first. Resilience makes it easy for you to build robustness, metabolic strength and be flexible enough to tolerate those same stressors, plus new ones.
In our quick fix culture, the ‘harder is better’ or ‘more is better’ attitudes are pervasive and they make it difficult for many people to grasp preventive or restorative concepts.
These ‘less is more’ tips may serve you better though by reducing total body stress, alleviate some of these symptoms. Many people will have to get past some old dogmas before this makes any sense.
If your sex drive drops, energy tanks, sleep is disturbed, menstrual cycle irregular, have low temps – these symptoms are showing you that your metabolism is fragile. The goal of restorative work is to move along the continuum towards antifragile. Restorative work deloads the total body allowing for more resilience. You can use food really well to support metabolic robustness - you just have to get out of the way and your metabolism restores itself.
An initial restorative phase builds resilience as you move along the spectrum towards robustness, strength and flexibility. Intermittent use of restorative/recovery strategies can be completely unique to each person, and a phase may not be required, only better recovery strategies or a better diet maybe.
“The anti-fragile is beyond the resilient or robust. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the anti-fragile gets better and better.” Nassim Nicholas Taleb
If you are Advanced…
You’ve trained consistently for at least 2-3 years, for preventative measures and for better performance: you can simply program a deload week into your training schedule. I’ve used similar techniques here: DELOAD. You may not need to take the entire week off lifting, you can lighten the load, reduce volume, or do bodyweight workouts, mobility work, or a variety of less intense workouts. You can (and probably should) also seek out therapeutic bodywork. It’s also a good time to try something new like MovNat, Capoeira, dance, hiking, etc.
If you are Advanced or Intermediate…
You don’t have to go hard 6 or 7 days a week. I know a lot of people say ‘but I want to arrgghhh…’. You’d get healthier from the rest and can get 3 or 4 total body workouts and get the same results, if not better.
In the past twenty years, injuries from working out have increased, and shoulders are a common injury. Interesting, injuries in women are rising faster than in men. Weight Lifting Gains Bring Pains, Too. Please get professional movement instruction. Sounds odd, doesn’t it? Something so normal, yet so foreign.
A lot of beginners can get great results, so do it right. Don’t too much too soon. You do not need more than one hour of training. Many out-of-shape beginners can do 20-30 minute workouts and do just fine. Please learn how to move properly, before you start blasting your legs with 3 sets of 20 fast lunges 3 times a week. Seek education in movement, get some skills training, not just a workout. You’re in it for the long haul, learn how to train, don’t just get trained…and of course, train don’t drain.
For the Busy…
You can get great results with 20-30 minute workouts in midday instead of rushing to squeeze it in late night. If your sleep is compromised, try switching your evening workouts to morning or lunch time and see if it helps you sleep better.
For the Stressed…
Do not workout on an empty stomach first thing in the morning. You can also use juice (OJ, salt, gelatin) during the workout to maintain stable blood sugar levels.
Misconception: when I say ’stress’ most people assume that I mean their mental/emotional health. Many are still unaware of how stress affects the body.
I am not the first to write about this, Paul Chek pioneered this concept n the fitness industry of matching the right workout to the person’s stress level. His zone exercises are still an integral part of my fitness solutions.
I recently found this article which is the first to mention the Antifragile concept. I was thrilled to discover the author eloquently explains this continuum in health, fitness & well being: The Porcelain Doll Diet
Another misconception with people labeled ‘adrenal fatigued’ or ‘damaged’ or ‘broken’ is that they somehow failed. They’ve tried every diet and now that they’re in their mid 30’s, things are slowing down. I’ve heard this often, but it is simply not true. It’s usually the unrealistic comparison to the social standard perfect body fantasy, which doesn’t exist. This whole health & fat loss thing in America is one big psyco-social mess.
Your Metabolism on Stress
You can get an idea of how stress is affecting your metabolism with biofeedback like temperature or noticing symptoms (poor digestion, low sex drive, cold hands/feet, irregular menses). Many of these symptoms are taken for granted and seen as a ‘normal part of living’, that is a misconception.
Low temps and symptoms give us an indication of total body stress and whether your body needs rest, recovery or restorative work. This will help you plan your workouts and know when to take it easy and when to turn it up.
Stressed is ‘Desserts’ Spelled Backwards
When we are stressed, the brain & body use more energy and carbs. Stress is a tremendous waste of energy, and it can create cravings. So when you get cravings, instead of fighting it – see it instead as a sign of stress or low blood sugar and your body needs to replenish. That’s next level ‘listening to your body’ right there. Cravings are your body calling out for the sugar energy you’re avoiding – feed that sexy beast!
You can use food, in particular carbs/sugar, to restrain the stress response when training hard and also therapeutically to recover from chronic stress. Antifragile foods include ice cream, salt, saturated fat like coconut oil, orange juice, chocolate, fruits and mineral-rich shellfish.
Misconception: Most people will have just read ‘Antonio just said eat an all-sugar-junk-food-diet! Ahhhhh….’ In similar ways people say ‘Antonio just said exercise is bad…Arghhhh’
No, I didn’t. I’m saying you can enjoy carbs & sugar and not only will it NOT ruin your health, it will help lower stress and boost metabolism.
If you want to know more about the physiology of why I tell people they shouldn’t try to burn fat in these circumstances, read this: How To Burn Fat and Why You Shouldn’t
At this point, the people that need this work seem to be the most resistant to the idea of working less and possibly eating more & enjoying food more.
The people I’ve worked with in restorative fitness phases came to me after they’ve burned out, so take heed: prevent the excess stress, burnout, overtraining or exhaustion before it happens. By learning a little about stress, using exercise as a tool to enhance the quality of your life, not a weapon to punish yourself you can easily improve overall health, metabolic strength & flexibility.
Use exercise and carbs wisely and you’ll have a whole new exciting experience not just with food, but life itself. You can go far no matter where you start along the metabolic health continuum using a ‘less is more’ approach. You can go from fragile to more resilient to more robustness to antifragile, without working too hard. Learn how to read your temps, know thyself and choose exercise carefully.
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