Friday, November 20, 2015

Stress Less to Lift More

You wake-up abruptly to the sound of your alarm clock. You press snooze, and then jolt up about 5 minutes later. Then, you scramble to find clothes to wear, brush your hair, brush your teeth and race out of the house to the car. While you're driving to work, you are constantly checking the time, getting exasperated by every stop light, ever car that's going too slow on the highway, and all of the detours that send you off route. When you finally make it to your job, just on time, you gasp a sigh of relief. Now you can begin to attack your "to-do list," which seems to be never-ending. Overwhelmed, you sit at your desk and take a big sip of coffee and get to work.

Does your day closely mirror the scenario I've described above?

No, I'm not a psychic, and I haven't been watching you on a hidden camera. So many of us, regrettably, spend our days on auto-pilot. Our heart rates rise along with our blood pressure, and we constantly complain that there aren't enough hours in the day.

Impending deadlines, hectic work schedules, familial responsibilities, and other stressors, can make it hard to allow yourself to relax and just let go of all of the craziness for a bit. With a little bit of meditation, however, you'll find that your workouts will improve, you will recover faster, and your daily life might just be a bit more manageable.

To understand recovery and stress, you need a little bit of background about the central nervous system. The chart above illuminates the hierarchy of the nervous system, but for the scope of this article, I'm going to talk about the divisions of the autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

The parasympathetic nervous system allows us to "rest and digest." When you are relaxing or meditating, your heart rate decreases. The PNS promotes recovery from stress and healing. At the other end of the spectrum, you have the sympathetic nervous system. The SNS is known for the "fight or flight" state. If you trip on the stairs, you're going to enter the sympathetic nervous system. Your heart rate elevates, your blood pressure increases, and your breath may become shallow and infrequent.

Many of us are quite familiar with the sympathetic nervous system, as we spend our days in frequent bouts of stress and anxiety.

Now what does all of this have to do with exercise? Well, as you know, exercise will do quite a number on your body. Your connective tissues take a beating, and they need time to repair so that you can attack your subsequent workouts. If we stay in the SNS, then, you're just not going recover optimally, if at all. In fact, you may even enter a state of catabolism (breakdown of muscle proteins). There's no sense in busting your butt in the gym if you're ultimately gonna stress away all your hard work, is there?

The diagram on the left talks a bit about Hans Selye's General Adaptation Syndrome. There are three stages: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. Without adequate rest after repeated bouts of stress, one may reach the exhaustion stage, in which their performance regresses and they experience frequent injury. The body needs adequate rest in order to continue to train hard.

Here's an interesting study on high school swimmers: Jiang and colleagues had the athletes use meditation for recovery from intense training sessions. "Mood states, anxiety, and heart rate measures served as the dependent variables." They found that "meditation training as a mental warm down combined with a physical warm down are more effective to facilitate acute and long-term heart rate recovery, lower mood disturbance scores, decrease cognitive anxiety compared to just taking a rest after vigorous training and during the recovery period." Furthermore, "the experimental group demonstrated significantly lower scores than the control group in fatigue, depression, and anger." The meditating students had a more regulated mood, and they were recovering better from practices!

Another study, with Stults-Kolehmainen et. al. found that "in all analyses, higher stress was associated with worse recovery. Stress, whether assessed as life event stress or perceived stress, moderated the recovery trajectories of muscular function and somatic sensations in a 96-hour period after strenuous resistance exercise."

When considering the stresses felt by our body in exercise, we must also remember all of the other factors at play. If you're regularly working 70+ hour work weeks, or leading a lifestyle of stress, that will undoubtedly affect your workout recovery time. Every stressor accumulates a greater demand for recovery on the central nervous system, and dictates more time to return back to your baseline.

In my experience, meditation is a wonderful practice that can help you wind down after a tough day. Even 10-15 minutes a day will help you maintain your equilibrium and channel your inner Dalai Lama. Different types of meditation work for different people, but I prefer to just lay on my back, taking big, diaphragmatic breaths, and thinking positive thoughts. I let all of the negativity escape my mind, and remind myself not to let trivial things consume me.

Find a way to allow your brain to unwind after a tough day or tough week, and you may find yourself to be more at peace, less injured, and performing at an all time high. Allow your body to recover from all of the demands you have placed on it, so that you can get back to working out in half the amount of time!

As my father always says "don't write checks that your body can't cash!"

Works Cited:
  1. Jiang, Zhenying. "The Effects of Meditation Training on Post workout Anxiety, Mood State, and Heart Rate Recovery of Us High School Swimmers." SPORTS SCIENCE 20.6 (2000): 66-74.
  2. Solberg, E. E., K. A. Berglund, O. Engen, O. Ekeberg, and M. Loeb. "The Effect of Meditation on Shooting Performance." British Journal of Sports Medicine 30.4 (1996): 342-46. Web.
  3. Stults-Kolehmainen, Matthew A., John B. Bartholomew, and Rajita Sinha. "Chronic Psychological Stress Impairs Recovery of Muscular Function and Somatic Sensations Over a 96-Hour Period." Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 28.7 (2014): 2007-017. Web.

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