Stress & Exercise: How Chronic Stress Affects Your Workout Performance

Stressed out? When someone is affected by high stress in their life, some common barriers can hurt you and your participation in exercising.

6 min read

Health & Wellness

Stress & Exercise: How Chronic Stress Affects Your Workout Performance

What is Stress?

What exactly is the meaning of “stress”? All of us will, at some point in our life, experience this unwanted emotion, but do you know what “stress” is and what it does to the body? Some of us might sometimes feel pain in our chest or become dizzy and shaky, while others may feel like our heart is racing so fast that it will explode from our wardrobe. The standard definition for “stress” is the disruption of the body’s homeostasis or a state of disharmony in response to a real or perceived threat or challenge. (1) You may experience this feeling before a big test or leading up to a deadline of a project for work; there are a plethora of reasons as to why one might feel stress.


Acute Stress Definition

Acute stress occurs during a particular time and event and is isolated to that incident. One might experience acute stress when you’re preparing for an important presentation at work or when you have a near-miss car accident. Some of the common symptoms you might undergo when dealing with acute symptoms include heart palpitations, shortness of breath, feeling lightheaded, stomach pain or indigestion, chest pain, sweating, and headaches. The body and nervous system are equipped to handle shorter instances of stress.


What is Acute Stress Disorder?

Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) is very similar to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in some ways and has many of the same overlapping symptoms. The difference between the two is that PTSD symptoms can last for more than a month, even years, while ASD symptoms, on the other hand, last between 3 & 30 days. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5), the following criteria must be met for a diagnosis of ASD.

  • Identifying a particular event as the cause of the symptoms, ruling out other reasons such as physical conditions, alcohol, or medication.
  • Symptoms that occurred within three days to 1 month of the stressor and lasted at least three days.
  • Significant distress interferes with your day-to-day activities, including social life, school, and work.
  • Direct or indirect exposure to a traumatic event, including actual or threatened death, sexual violation, or a severe injury.
  • Presence of nine (or more) symptoms from any of the five categories- intrusion, negative mood, dissociation, avoidance, and arousal that either started or worsened after the traumatic event or events occurred.


What is the Definition of Chronic Stress?

Like chronic pain or chronic illness, chronic stress is ongoing stress and can increase or decrease in severity but is relatively consistent in its presence. This could be due to many things, from an unhealthy relationship where you’re constantly arguing to a job that is burdensome and leaves you overworked daily. Common symptoms of chronic stress might include…

  • Isolation or emotional withdrawal
  • Low energy
  • Aches and pains
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Trouble staying focused
  • Change in appetite


When is Chronic Stress Continued

In 2015 a study concluded that Chronic Stress could take a toll on the body and affect you both physically and mentally. When Chronic Stress is heightened in an individual, the body releases a stress hormone. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), as these stress hormones are released into the body consistently with no immediate threat, this can lead to chronic health issues such as diabetes and high blood pressure, along with mental health conditions such as addiction, depression, and anxiety.


What is a Chronic Stressor?

A “stressor” is an event or situation that causes stress. When a person encounters a “stressor,” the body prepares to respond to the challenge or threat. (1) Many of us might know this as the “fight or flight” response. Seven main contributors can cause a stressor, physical environment, social/relational, financial, organizational, life events, lifestyle choices, and physiological. A Chronic Stressor is an event or situation that causes continual stress.


How Chronic Stress Harms Your Body

When we feel a stressor from one or more contributors, the automatic nervous and endocrine systems respond by producing the hormones epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol—this hormone production results from a cascade of physiological reactions that make up the stress response. Epinephrine & norepinephrine are involved in the initial changes to prepare the body to react and prepare for a challenge. These responses include increases in heart and respiration rates, blood pressure, perspiration, energy production, and even suppression of the immune system. (1)


Common Chronic Stress Barriers that May Affect Your Exercise Performance

When someone is affected by high stress in their life, some common barriers can hurt you and your participation in exercising. It’s essential to understand the different contributors to stress-related health problems (the seven main contributors to stress) and what some of the most common exercise barriers one run’s into when stressed should be considered when developing an exercise program for high-stress individuals. Common barriers that can negatively impact your exercise participation include a lack of motivation, fatigue, poor sleep habits, and poor dietary habits. Not only can these common barriers directly affect your performance & participation when it comes to exercising, but they can also have those same effects on your personal and day-to-day life. (1)


How Much Exercise is Needed to Manage Chronic Stressors?

When developing an exercise program for high-stress individuals, common exercise barriers and stress-related health problems should be considered. The proposed physiological adaptations thought to improve how the body handles stress and recovers from stress can occur with a regular moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise program, such as the recommended 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity per week. (1) If “lack of time” happens to be one of your chronic stress barriers, think about breaking up your workout into two 10–15-minute sessions, one before work and one at lunchtime, if possible. This can also help combat stress throughout the day.


Other Ways to Manage Chronic Stressors Through Exercise

There has not been much research conducted on resistance exercise & stress management, but resistance exercise can be used to provide a time-out from one’s stressors. Resistance training produces different adaptations compared to aerobic exercise, so it might not have the same effect, the same way the body physiologically reacts to stress when performing an aerobic activity. However, the acute effect of a time-out to reduce stress is beneficial. Recent reviews of Tai Chi and Yoga have also indicated that sessions between 60 and 90 minutes performed two to three days per week effectively reduce stress and improve feelings of well-being.(1)


Final Thoughts…

Studies have shown that being active and working out can help acute and chronic stress and help eliminate your everyday stressors, particularly aerobic exercise. That’s not to say that you can only get stressor relief only through aerobic exercise. It has been shown that it is the most beneficial when coping with stress in your life. If you are not a fan of aerobic exercise, that’s ok; it’s not for everyone. Regardless of the style of training or kind of physical activity, you decide to use to cope with your stress, the most important thing is to make sure that it’s something you enjoy doing.


(1) ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal, Journal, 2013. Accessed 13 June, 2022


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