It has become common knowledge that exercise can help to alleviate stress, but what is not often discussed, is the effects that too much exercise can have on the body, especially when combined with psychological stress. Yes, exercise is good for you, and everyone can benefit from including physical activity into their daily lives, however there is a growing “no pain, no gain”, “no days off” mentality in the fitness industry that can be potentially harmful.
Overtraining is a term that describes high volume and/or frequency of exercise training without sufficient recovery (Meehan, 2001). Overtraining can lead to injury, as well as overtraining syndrome, which has a host of symptoms including decreased athletic performance, feelings of depression, and decreased immune function, to name a few.
Some studies have shown that non-training stress, such as environmental or lifestyle stressors can contribute to the development of overtraining syndrome (Meehan, 2001). Not only do these non-training stressors affect an athlete’s risk for developing overtraining syndrome, according to Steffen, Pensgaard, and Bahr, the likelihood of sport related injury is also affected by issues of competition anxiety, behavioural traits, and stress-coping strategies (2009).
If we think about the human body in terms of hormones, it’s no surprise that life stressors can impact health and athletic performance. Our bodies produce a hormone called cortisol when we experience stress. The production of cortisol is not limited to environmental or life stressors, but is also produced when we exercise. When a person experiences long term, or intense stress, higher levels of cortisol are present; add frequent, high intensity exercise training to that and cortisol levels increase further. Cortisol serves a purpose in the body at appropriate levels, but at increased levels over time it can compromise immune functioning. According to Randall (2011), high levels of stress, even over short time periods can affect the body in a variety ways. These Include heightened vulnerability to viral infections, prolonged healing times, and accumulation of abdominal fat, among other things. Randall also states that acute and prolonged stress can contribute to low overall health (2011).
Stress is an inevitable part of life, but whether short term, or long term, it does have an effect on the body. When psychological stress is paired with the body’s stress response to exercise, the effects of cortisol on the body will only increase.
If stress is inevitable, how can people prevent these negative effects and prevent overtraining syndrome?
The most important thing anyone can do is listen to their body, especially in times of high stress. It is also highly important that any exercise program be made to include sufficient rest and recovery in order to prevent overtraining. If you experience any symptoms of overtraining, such as decreased performance, prolonged healing time from illness, etc., a visit to the doctor is the first thing you need in order to eliminate other illness. Once further illness has been eliminated, rest is the best medicine.
The “no days off mentality” that has become prevalent in the fitness industry is meant as motivation to work out regularly. In theory, it is excellent motivation, but in reality, no days off from strenuous exercise training, could be highly damaging. As beneficial as regular exercise is, sufficient rest is equally important. Rest and exercise need not be seen as opposites, but as partners in overall wellness.
By Andrea Troughton
Kellmann, M. (2010). Preventing overtraining in athletes in high-intensity sports and stress/recovery monitoring. Scandinavian Journal Of Medicine & Science In Sports, 2095-102.
Meehan, H.L, Bull, S.J. and James, D.V.B. (2001).The role of non-training stress in
the development of the over-training syndrome. Paper presented at the annual
conference of the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences.
Plowman, S. A., & Smith, D.L. (2014). Exercise Physiology for Health, Fitness, Performance (4th Ed) (pp. 669-678) Baltimore, MD: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, a Wolters Kluwer business.
Randall, M. (2011). The Physiology of Stress: Cortisol and the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis. Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science. Retrieved from: http://dujs.dartmouth.edu/fall-2010/the-physiology-of-stress-cortisol-and-the-hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal-axis#.VPOgzhDANs4
Steffen, K., Pensgaard, A. M., & Bahr, R. (2009). Self-reported psychological characteristics as risk factors for injuries in female youth football. Scandinavian Journal Of Medicine & Science In Sports, 19(3), 442-451.