Stress Is No Joke: An Expert Explains How It Affects Your Physical Fitness

Have you ever dragged yourself to the gym after a particularly stressful day and you just can't bring yourself to finish that treadmill session? It can feel impossible to get a good workout in when you're not feeling 100 percent. That's because stress has a serious effect on the body, and it can mess with your fitness in ways you might not expect.

POPSUGAR spoke to Liz Letchford, MS, ATC, EMT, personal trainer and exercise specialist, who explained that there are two kinds of stressors that affect the central nervous system. Positive stressors, like working toward a goal or completing a tough workout, have "a training effect" on the body, so you're building yourself up to get stronger and face future situations. However, negative stressors, like facing pressure-filled deadlines or dealing with toxic relationships, can stimulate your "sympathetically dominated central nervous system (fight-or-flight mode)."

"If you submit your body to workout stress on top of your life stress, your body will eventually not be able to keep up, and you risk adrenal fatigue."

"When you work out, whether it's cardio or weightlifting, your body's nervous system is being taxed," Liz said. "The more often you exercise, the easier the body is eventually able to achieve dominance by the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system."

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But it's a bit of a different story when you're stressed. "When you are dealing with stress or anxiety, that nervous system is being double taxed, and it won't be able to perform well," she said. "If you have ever tried to workout when sleep-deprived or very stressed, you'll know what I mean. Everything feels heavier, more difficult." Yep, it sure does.

"If movement helps you de-stress, choose workouts that are nowhere near maximal effort."

Unfortunately, you can't just power through a workout and expect it to be helpful when you're battling stress. "If you submit your body to workout stress on top of your life stress, your body will eventually not be able to keep up, and you risk adrenal fatigue," Liz warned. "Adrenal fatigue has the ability to undo all of your efforts in the gym, making you feel lethargic and unable to perform at a high level as well as making you gain weight."

OK, so maybe skip the gym session next time you're stressed AF. According to Liz, your body's nervous system is giving its full attention to whatever is currently causing you stress, so "it isn't functioning optimally to help you maintain your balance or activate the appropriate stabilizing muscles that protect you from injury." You won't be able to lift as heavy or run as fast as you normally do, and if you tried to do your normal routine, "the system couldn't handle it and you risk muscle strain or worse."

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If you feel the pressure of the world beating down on you, for goodness sake, Liz recommends you rest. Just rest. "If movement helps you de-stress, choose workouts that are nowhere near maximal effort," she suggested. "Go on a walk, take a slow, meditative yoga class, stretch, or participate in a [release] class."

No matter what you choose, make sure it's something that will alleviate stress, not exacerbate the already existing stress that's sitting on your shoulders - and in your nervous system.