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How Stress Impacts Exercise and Our Performance

How Stress Impacts Exercise and Our Performance

It’s well known that exercise can be a great stress reliever. You know the feeling…
It’s been a stressful day, and you head to the gym to blow off some steam or hit the track to release the endorphins. When I head for a long walk, I know that it certainly releases any feelings of stress I had bubbling away. But can high levels of stress harm exercise, more specifically our performance?

Stress and Performance

In good amounts, stress can be rather beneficial to performance, competition, and readiness. It shows our needs and wants to succeed. It can help make you more alert and focused on performing well. In this sense, we can view stress as almost energy. In contrast to this, too much stress or unrelated sports stress may lead to decreases in performance, overtraining or under training, lack of concentration, or possibly an increased injury risk.

Let’s talk about that non-training-related stress. This could be anything from the experiences at work, family stresses, finances, and so on. Stresses as such may have a negative impact on our body which in turn decreases performance or recovery. When life stressors are high, this impacts the endocrine system, which influences growth and metabolic activities. Cortisol, often referred to as the ‘stress hormone,’ prepares our body for its flight or fight response when in high stress or anxiety levels. If cortisol levels are increased, this can have a catabolic (losing or breaking down) effect on our muscles.

Stress and Injuries

As mentioned above, an increase in stress levels may be a risk factor for injury. The stress injury model by William and Andersen (1998) helps us understand how stressful events or factors may increase our risk of injury. It represents the bidirectional relationship of personality factors, history of stressors and coping resources, and their link to an athlete’s stress response, ultimately leading to a higher risk of injury. In simple terms and say a non-athlete, we could use the example of having a stressful time at work trying to meet a deadline, which impacts your sleep, which increases your cortisol levels, your body is underperforming, and your concentration is altered. When you play your sport or hit your workout, you are at higher risk of injury due to all these factors that impact each other.

What can we do?

  1. Try to lower the intensity – For example, don’t go and hit the highest intensity workout if you’re feeling way too overwhelmed and stressed. That doesn’t mean movement won’t help. Try a long walk or some relaxing yoga.
    Make sure you get enough sleep – The importance of sleep is sometimes missed. Not enough people prioritise it, but that extra hour can really make the difference. Not only will it help reduce your stress levels, but you’ll feel more energised to exercise. They all connect!
  2. Nutrition – Another thing that sometimes slips under the radar. Making sure you are consuming good quality and nutritious food can make all the difference, especially when it comes to energy and concentration levels.
  3. Talk more – Talking when we are stressed or anxious can do wonders. You may find if you let out the stresses of the day or speak out your concerns and worries. Your brain is a lot freer to be able to play your sport or hit the gym!

While we love to use exercise as a stress reliever, it’s still important not to overdo it. Finding that good balance between too much and not enough is essential to experience the benefits of exercise without letting it bring you down further. Most importantly, remember to look after yourself mentally and physically! Your health is your greatest wealth!

See Also

To find out more about Hollie Murray, take a look at her website and her social media. For more support in managing stress, take a look at our other stress-related articles here.

Finnerty, C.C., Mabvuure, N.T., Ali, A., Kozar, R.A. and Herndon, D.N. (2013) The Surgically Induced Stress Response. Journal of parenteral and enteral nutrition, 37(5), pp. 21-29.
Yaribeygi, H., Panahi, Y., Sahraei, H., Johnston, T.P., and Sahebkar, A. (2017) The impact of stress on body function: a review. Experimental and Clinical Sciences Journal, 16, pp. 1057 – 1072.
Williams, J. M., and Andersen, M. B. (1998) ‘Psychosocial antecedents of sports injury: Review and critique of the stress and injury model.’ Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 10 (1), pp. 5-25.

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