Q&A: Mental Stress and Workout Frequency

Question: Does mental stress affect workout recovery? If so, if reducing stress is not possible should people prone to psychological stress reduce workout frequency?

Answer: A high level of mental stress can negatively affect sleep, hormones, and immune function which can hamper recovery from and adaptation to training; however, exercise has been shown to reduce stress and improve people’s ability to cope with it so it may benefit someone under a lot of stress to exercise more frequently rather than cutting back. Over the years I’ve trained a lot of people in high-stress professions – doctors, lawyers, law enforcement officers, fire fighters, teachers, etc. – and many of them listed stress-relief as one of their reasons for exercising and expressed feeling less stressed during and after their workouts.

High Intensity Training can help reduce psychological stress and improve your ability to cope with it.

Last Saturday a client called me shortly after his workout to thank me, saying he’d been having a particularly stressful week and felt much better after his workout (a modification of the bodyweight 3×3 from Project Kratos). Another client with a stressful job made a similar comment the week before, saying he loves his workouts despite the intensity because of how he feels afterwards. I think the reason for this is a properly performed high intensity workout requires such intense concentration and focus that it tends to drive thoughts of anything else out of your mind for a while, including whatever is worrying you or causing you stress.

If you are worried about overtraining and don’t want to add another workout or feel you must reduce your workout volume and frequency you can substitute another activity that occupies your mind. Read books. Hike, climb, kayak, cycle, or just go for a walk. Spend more time with friends and less time with the people who cause you stress. Study a martial art. Go to the pistol or rifle range and spend an afternoon shooting. Learn or practice playing a musical instrument.

I am not a psychologist, a psychiatrist, or an expert on stress management, so the following is just an opinion and speculation based on my experience. Your mileage may vary.

Although there may be exceptions, for most people I think it is possible to reduce stress and/or learn to handle it better. History is full of examples of people who remained relatively calm and collected and just dealt with extremely stressful situations, and much of what modern humans living in industrialized nations consider stressful is nothing compared to what most of the humans who have ever lived had to cope with daily just to survive. I’ve had my share of stressful situations, some of which I handled very poorly and some of which I handled very well. In retrospect the difference had less to do with the specifics of the situations and more with how I chose to think about and react to them. Accept that bad things happen, that it is pointless and counterproductive to worry or stress out over things outside of your control. Instead, focus on what you do have control over and what you can do and keep moving forward. Fix what you can, learn to cope with what you can’t.

If you’re so stressed out you think you need to reduce your workout volume and frequency to avoid overtraining then being overtrained is the least of your worries. Your priority should be doing what you can to reduce stress and improve your ability to cope with it, and since exercise benefits this it would be a mistake to cut back.

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