Stress changes the very structure and function of your brain and body. Your nervous system cannot distinguish whether stress is mental or physical – thus when stress is present, every movement, thought and reaction is altered.
With that being said stress can be positive (eustress) or negative (distress); therefore, how we react and respond to stress and ultimately our relationship to stress becomes the primer for living an optimal lifestyle.
Positive and Negative Stress:
Distress or negative stress directly relates to high levels of stress that we cannot recover from. This can include overtraining and the physical stress of intolerable volumes or loads; as well as trauma and prolonged mental and emotional stress.
Eustress or positive stress directly relates to tolerable levels of physical and psychological stress like sport and exercise in tolerable doses, meditation, new challenges and things we enjoy.
The Rise of Chronic Pain:
We live in a society where chronic pain, inflammation, injuries and daily soreness are at an all-time high and it’s not because of high intensity workouts, it’s because of our lifestyle. The number one statement that comes up in my coaching is; “My doctor says, I need to work out to reduce my stress.”
We live a world that feeds upon being busy, being over worked, under slept, and where every workout has to feel like going to war to be successful. Maybe, that’s a bit of an embellishment, but the majority of people I see in my practice are all searching for balance, but all spend 8 or more hours seated (not moving), that’s 489 minutes of your 1440 minutes in a 24-hour day. Then heading to the gym for an hour or more; which usually consists of high intensity training, loading the body and when they ask me… “I don’t know why I have pain, I don’t feel I’m overly stressed.”
This statement has validity, but if you are already dealing with high stress, adding more physical stress will just do more damage. When it comes to corrective movement, lifestyle is 80% of the corrective strategy.
Let’s Talk Rest Versus Recovery:
First things first, we all need rest and most of us are not getting enough. Sleep is essential and the only way tissues fully repair. Lack of sleep, means depleting your body of that essential repair. Rest is passive.
Recovery on the other hand, should be active. And it should be a priority. However, it is still the most neglected and often overlooked aspect of programming and training. If you can’t recover, you can’t train optimally.
Your Autonomic Nervous System
Your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) controls your body’s unconscious processes; such as blood sugar, adrenaline dump vs drip, digestion, heart rate and breathing and much more.
The ANS has two main branches: the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) (flight or flight) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) (rest and digest). Both of which are critical to our survival.
Our internal structure works around the clock to ensure balance, and offers us subtle suggestions when things start to fall off the tracks. This can be in the form of mild sickness, not feeling rested, feeling fatigued or foggy, and even prolonged pain or discomfort that is out of the ordinary.
If you do not account for recovery and rest, it’s like driving a car with a flat tire and a half tank of gas and expecting it to operate like a Maserati.
It is important for your body to go into recovery mode if it needs it. This can have negative impacts on training improvements and longer-term health if we do not allow the parasympathetic system to do its job.
Understanding the “tone” of the autonomic nervous system can be extremely useful in assessing whether you are over training (catabolic or breaking down), under training (plateau) or developing and adapting (anabolic or building up) state; as well as determining the nature and effectiveness of your therapeutic sessions and training sessions.
Monitoring Your Nervous System’s Activity:
With the rise of wearable technology and fitness/health trackers it’s easier than ever to monitor your health; however it can be challenging to know where to start or how to interpret the data once collected.
To ensure you don’t play the guessing game, it’s always best to consult with a professional who can help you achieve a baseline or do as much research as you can to ensure your success.
The keys to monitoring your nervous system your health and the state of your recovery boil down to these 3 key ingredients:
Resting Heart Rate – Directly after exercise, your heart rate should drop sharply in the first minute. In graded exercise tests, clinicians like to see a heart rate reduction of at least 12 beats per minute in the first minute following exercise if the patient is standing and a reduction of 22 beats per minute if the patient is sitting.(1)
Sleep Patterns and Quality – We’ve all heard the term, “losing sleep over something.” Stress can make it hard to sleep, it’s a vicious cycle. However, sleep is essential to every function in the human body. Without out, things start to fall apart. Sleep is essential, because it is during this time where vagal tone is most dominant. Meaning, parasympathetic activity is highest – meaning recovery. Studies show that a minimum of 8 hours is necessary for most people to function optimally. (2)
Heart Rate Variability – HRV is the best non-invasive measure of the Autonomic Nervous System, which is the main controller of health and performance functions. It can be done from the comfort of your own home, using a smart phone and a chest strap. Under 5 minutes per day makes it easy to modify your training or day if needed. (3)
(1) Heart Rate Recovery and Risk of Cardiovascular Events and All‐Cause Mortality: A Meta‐Analysis of Prospective Cohort Studies
Shanhu Qiu, MD, 1 Xue Cai, MSc, 1 Zilin Sun, PhD,corresponding author 1 Ling Li, MD, 1 Martina Zuegel, PhD, 2 Juergen Michael Steinacker, MD, 2 and Uwe Schumann, PhD 2
(2) Heart rate variability during specific sleep stages. A comparison of healthy subjects with patients after myocardial infarction.
(3) The HRV Course at EliteHRV