Think about it for a second. If you struggle with emotional eating for example, that’s a habit, and you’re responding to a trigger either in your environment or in your mind. If you miss workouts it could be due to stress from work, lack of sleep (stress), lack of support from friends (environment), living too far from the gym (environment), or worrying that you’ll make a fool of yourself (also stress).
This is a post about stress.
Stress comes in many varieties, and I've written about it briefly before, over here. We humans have to deal with both external sources of stress (diet, exercise, lack of sleep, other people, environmental chemicals, climate/weather fluctuations) and internal sources of stress (our thoughts, worries, beliefs, and fears). And then we try to distinguish between psychological stress and physical stress and metabolic stress and emotional stress and social stress... it all seems very complicated!
At the cellular level, though, stress is actually not complicated at all. Whenever a neuron fires in your brain or you move a muscle, that’s stress. Both of these require the cell to use energy, which produces waste products and causes wear and damage to the cell. It’s basically the same regardless of what’s causing the stress, and generally the body is very good at repairing the damage and adapting back stronger so you can take more stress in the future. Strength training stresses your muscles, and your recovery time builds them up. Likewise, emotions (good or bad) and learning stress the brain, which builds stronger connections as a result. Maybe you’re trying to learn another language, or beginning to associate another place or person with a certain emotion.
When we think of stress this way, it’s obvious that not all stress is bad. Without stress we would never learn or improve or get fitter or remember anything. It’s only when we’re chronically stressed, for a long period of time without the chance to recover, that problems appear.
I’m sure you’ve heard of the “fight-or-flight response.” That’s when high enough levels of stress trigger the release of stress hormones, which increase your heart rate, quicken your breathing, release glucose to fuel your muscles, and might make you feel anxious or super focused. The point of this response, evolutionarily, is to prepare us to move and act - sprinting away from a glyptodont, maybe. However, unlike other animals, humans can set off the fight-or-flight response just by THINKING about a danger that’s not even in front of us. If we’re constantly worrying about something, we can end up in this hyper-alert, stressed out state for a long time, and that’s not good. Chronic stress inhibits the immune system, making you more susceptible to disease, and also affects memory, making it harder to learn.
What does all this have to do with burpees?!
Well, exercise is one of the best ways to cope with stress (the kind when you feel stressed out, due to stress on your brain cells). Burpees are quickly becoming my favorite form of stress relief. They’re high enough intensity, don’t require any equipment, and I don’t have to go anywhere!
What’s that? You still hate burpees? Well fine, but here's how exercise helps with stress - and it’s not just because it makes you feel good!
- In the short term - If you’ve already set off the stress response (you’re feeling anxious or your heart is pounding), exercise can immediately calm you down. It’s like you’re “running off” the fight-or-flight reaction by moving - exactly what your body wants you to do in a stressful situation. Physical activity reduces resting muscle tension, so when you stop doing burpees, you can actually relax. When your muscles relax, this tells your brain it can relax too. Serotonin levels also get a boost, giving you a feeling of safety and security. The most interesting part though, is that exercise triggers the release of inhibitory neurotransmitters that prevent overactivity in the brain. It’s excessive brain activity - obsessive, runaway thoughts you can’t get out of your head - that causes anxiety.
- Over the long term - Exercise itself is a stressor, not just on your muscles but on neurons as well, that fire to tell your muscles to move. The mild stress of exercise helps your brain become more resilient - to any sort of stress, because it’s all basically the same, remember! Your body starts to stockpile waste-disposing enzymes, and build proteins to protect neurons from wear and tear. Similar adaptations occur when you stress your brain in other ways, such as learning something new, but exercise is even better because your muscles produce additional growth factors to promote brain growth. All this leads to a higher stress threshold, and the ability to form new neural pathways so you learn to cope with stress in a healthier way.
Yesterday afternoon for me went something like this: After about an hour of reading random articles on Psychology Today, browsing other people’s Instagram profiles, anxiously twiddling my hair, and trying to decide whether or not I should take a nap, I realized I was procrastinating. Because I was stressed. It was supposed to be a productive day! Time to get back to work. But uh oh, my computer was telling me I was running out of disk space, so I plugged in my external hard drive… and then it started going incredibly slowly, so I restarted… which seemed to take FOREVER, causing me MORE STRESS.
Eventually I managed to convince myself to try a new tactic, so I got up and did 50 burpees. I think I did 20-15-10-5. And then I did some handstands too. So much better! I was actually able to focus and write for another couple hours before taking a break. Using exercise to cope with stress is not quite an ingrained habit for me yet, but that’s ok, I’m getting there.
Do you use exercise to cope with stress? And how much do you love/hate burpees??