“Adopting the right attitude can convert a negative stress into a positive one.” — Hans Selye
I have a confession to make. My life grinds to a screeching halt whenever I get stressed. Well, that was before I was able to manage my stressors. From my teenage years to my early 20’s, I have constantly experienced being bogged down by stress. Whenever I find myself being tossed into a situation beyond my control, my world spins out of control—my mind becomes like a deer in headlights and it always felt like my body is about to implode. Having anxiety growing up made it doubly difficult for me to convert my negative stressors into something positive.
I used to veer away from family gatherings and social events. My anxiety was so severe that I used to have cold sweat whenever I am in a crowd. The stress of having to relate with others is enough to paralyze me. It took years for me to address my anxiety as well as my incapacity to deal with stress. Today, I would like to share with you one of my secrets in stress management and that is putting recovery first!
“Hard work requires hard recovery.” — Steve Fraser, Olympic Wrestling Coach
Benefits of Stress
Stress plus rest equals success! We human beings have evolved to benefit from moderate amounts of physical and mental stress amidst a hostile environment during our hunting and gathering age. To survive, our body’s main weapon is adaptation. Once our bodies are able to process and adapt to the stressor it has experienced, it grows the ability to withstand the same stressor the second time around. For example, when you squat a 45-lb barbell for the first time, your legs may feel wobbly and weak as you struggle to stand up. But after weeks of practice and squatting the same weight, your legs grow additional muscle fibers making them stronger and more stable. This enables you lift the barbell with power and ease. Thankfully, this principle of adaptation is applicable in all areas of our lives—from the problems we face at work to how our health is shaped from the food we eat. We can use the same principle of adaptation to improve ourselves in many ways.
It is not the strongest of the species that survives, not the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” — Charles Darwin
Too Much Stress
Today, however, many people live at a destructively frantic pace. Such a fast-paced lifestyle puts them under a constant state of danger and a heightened sense of being alert. Always online waiting for notifications from your phone? Staying too late in the office trying to meet a deadline? Scared of solitude and silence? These are typical situations where we are subjected to chronic or long-lasting stress. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing and while moderate stress makes us stronger, too much stress wrecks havoc on our bodies. So how do we determine how much stress is beneficial and how much is detrimental? There’s gotta be a sweet spot, right?
“Stress has a degenerative effect. A sustained state of emergency affects the neurons associated with memory, as well as inhibiting the release of certain hormones, the absence of which can cause depression. It’s secondary effect include irritability, insomnia, anxiety, and high blood pressure.” —Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles
The answer is never black and white. Many factors are involved in how each of our bodies successfully adapt and become more resilient. Genetics, environment, and social circles are some of the many factors that play important roles in how much recovery our body needs. By just being aware of the things and situations that cause us stress and discomfort, we can know how much challenge we can introduce, say for example, in a fitness program. We can also determine which kind recovery techniques we can most benefit from.
“Awareness precedes choice and choice precedes results.” — Robin Sharma
“What does recovery mean? At the most basic level recovery means doing anything that causes energy to be recaptured. Our body expresses its recovery needs through feelings and emotions such as telling us “I feel hungry or tired”. The fulfillment of these urges (eating or sleeping) is a form of recovery. Just like with stress, there are three areas where recovery occurs – mental, physical and emotional. Recovery is where the growth and healing occurs in these areas.” — Steve Fraser, Olympic Wrestling Coach
In trying to achieve high levels of fitness and health, my advise is to work with a coach that focuses not only on your exercise and nutrition program, but also gives you advice on how to optimize your lifestyle. Also, make sure to identify and discuss with your coach the different stressors you encounter on a day to day basis so as to be able to respond better to your environment, manage your stressors, avoid overtraining and, ultimately, plan your recovery in a much better way. A complete and detailed picture of what your day looks like will help your coach design a customized program specifically for you. It also allows you to become better aware of your own daily and hourly schedules. Mindfulness is key to recovery. Don’t get lost in the things that you do, instead, be mindful in every task. Do not allow time to ever be wasted because time is a resource that is irreplaceable. Wasted time is and will always be wasted time. There’s no way to turn back the clock. Take that nap. Turn off that smartphone. Seize every moment for recovery no matter how short.
“To improve performance, training loads must be high enough to stimulate adaptation, but exposing an athlete to loads beyond his or her capacity—or underestimating the necessity rest—decreases the athlete’s ability to adapt training and make progress.” —Tudor Bompa, PhD and Carlo Buzzichelli
Recovery Tips and Tricks
Prevention is always better than cure. Here are some ways to allow your body to recover faster and catch up with all the demands of your everyday life.
1-Get Enough Sleep
We wear “busyness” like a badge of honor. Who needs sleep when we have a venti-sized cold brew that can get us working 24/7, right? Wrong. Studies show that it is only during deep and quality sleep that our brains are able to eliminate toxic waste materials produced during waking hours. Waste products slow our brains down and make us susceptible to disease. In his TED Talk, Jeff Illif discusses how Amyloid beta, a plaque forming compound related to Alzheimers disease, is only cleared out by the brain during sleep. You can check out his talk here: https://youtu.be/MJK-dMlATmM
Multiple studies show the rejuvenating effects of nature. Harvard physician Eva M. Selhub, author of Your Brain on Nature, says “A drop of nature is like a drop of morphine to the brain since it stimulates reward neurons in your brain. It turns off the stress response which means you have lower cortisol levels, lower heart rate and blood pressure, and improved immune response.” So, what are you waiting for? Go ahead and schedule that long awaited nature trip!
Feeling sore after an intense workout yesterday? It’s hard to get out of bed and get moving and most of us will try to recover with stillness and inactivity. This is not a good thing and according to Jonathan Ross, certified personal trainer at the American Council on Exercise, “Passive recovery involves doing nothing and is only warranted in the case of certain types of injury.” Active recovery is always the best way to go and it can include the following:
Massage or cupping therapy, which enhances recovery by increasing blood circulation and loosens tight muscles.
Mobility exercises, stretching or Yoga improve joint range of motion and increase blood flow to the muscles and in effect, speeds up recovery.
Low intensity exercise is a great way to recover while staying active. Because you are moving, you are preventing your muscles from forming adhesions. Adhesions cause the muscles to tighten up and become too stiff. Tight and stiff muscles do not get enough blood flow and may not function efficiently during intense training.
Here’s an easy 15-minute workout you can do on rest days anytime, anywhere!
2 to 3 Rounds of:
20 secs Mountain Climbers
40 secs Rest
20 secs Pistol/ Bodyweight squats
40 secs Rest
20 secs T Push Ups
40 secs Rest
20 secs V Ups
40 secs Rest
20 secs Bicycle Crunch
40 secs Rest
20 Good Mornings
40 sec Rest
Take a Break Before You Break It
I remember being confined in a hospital because of overtraining. It was at the height of preparation for a fitness competition but my skills were not yet at performance level. Naive and mindlessly excitable, I pushed my body so hard that my immune system crashed and got a viral infection. I later learned that it was something called “Exercise Induced Immunodepression,” and many competitive athletes experience it at one point in their careers. For three days I was bedridden and my muscles and joints were screaming in pain because of the virus. As my body healed, I realized much about stress and adaptation. When I walked out of that hospital, my philosophy about training changed forever.
“If you’re working hard all the time, you’re never truly recovered. You might be working hard, but you’re not working smart. On the contrary—you’re so mentally and physically fatigued that you’re not nearly as productive as you think you are.” —Mark Verstegen
We all want to be productive. We feel fulfilled and accomplished when we get things done quickly—in our work, in how we develop our bodies or how we improve our relationships. We try to fast track everything to match our fast-paced lifestyles. Yes, it is correct to teach ourselves to push our mental and physical boundaries—to have a sense of fight within us. However, our bodies can only take so much beating before it breaks down and gets injured or sick.
When I first started lifting, I used to train seven days a week and the only time I would take a break is when my body breaks down and fails to make progress. I remember going for 16 straight weeks, Monday to Sunday of non-stop weight training. I thought that pain was good and that fatigue was simply a sign of weakness. I was young, foolish and overly eager. Soon afterwards, I felt that something was wrong. Despite all my hard work inside the gym, lifting two hours a day, I saw little to no results. I was deeply addicted to training that I was completely missing out on the bigger picture, which is my health and my long-term progress. I decided to take a month-long hiatus before I lifted again and, slowly, I saw my gains come back.
“There is virtue in work and there is virtue in rest. Use both and overlook neither.” —Alan Cohen
Sometimes, in the hope to create an impact, we spread ourselves too thin and take on too much. However, we should realize that it can be greedy and irresponsible to desire instant results. The solution is simple but can be easily overlooked. Do today what your future self will thank you for. Sometimes, it’s work but sometimes it’s rest. Develop awareness, identify your stressors and take a break before you break it.