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Stress May Impair Recovery from Exercise

If your workouts are leaving you feeling extra sore and tired, you may want to check in with your stress levels. Recent research has found that chronic stress may actually impair the body’s ability to recover from exercise.

In our modern culture, it’s virtually impossible to live a stress-free life. Not all stress is bad, but chronic stress can lead to elevated cortisol levels—which have a physiological effect on the body.

We’ve all learned that exercise is an effective stress management tool. While this is true, there might be a catch. Apparently, chronic mental stress may actually lead to physical overload.

Researchers conducted a study that included subjects with high stress levels and low stress levels. They evaluated two kinds of stress: perceived stress and life event stress. Perceived stress is a subjective measure of how a person experiences stress—how it feels, so to speak. Life event stress, on the other hand, is more objective. It has nothing to do with how stress feels, just what it involves. Life event stress might include things like divorce, death of a loved one, moving, or a demanding job.

After the participants completed a strenuous strength workout, the researchers measured their subjective and objective recovery each day for four consecutive days. Measurements included muscular function (isometric muscular force) and somatic sensations such as perceived energy, fatigue and soreness.

The results indicated that stress impaired recovery, even after adjusting for fitness, workload, and training experience. Both perceived stress and life event stress impaired muscular force and perceived energy. In addition, life event stress was also associated with more fatigue and soreness. On the flip side, recovery was improved and faster in participants with low stress.

Balancing Stress and Exercise
So, what does this mean for you? Should you skip your workouts when you’re under extreme stress? Not necessarily. Remember, stress is an important stress management tool.

However, this recent research highlights the importance of tuning in to your body and paying attention. If you’re under extreme stress and you’re feeling tired, stressed, and extra sore after exercise, give yourself an extra day or two off between workouts to allow your body to fully recover.

Stults-Kolehmainen MA, Bartholomew JB, Sinha R. Chronic Psychological Stress Impairs Recovery of Muscular Function and Somatic Sensations over a 96-Hour Period. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Published early online December 13, 2013. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000335