Recent research has found that chronic stress may actually impair the body’s ability to recover from exercise. “If you’re under a lot of stress, your workouts could leave you extra sore and tired—and too much of that can lead to injury,” says Fort Worth Orthopedic Surgeon Dr. Michael Boothby.
The Physical Effects of Psychological Stress
Exercise is touted as an effective stress management tool—and there is no doubt that it is an important one. However, there might be a catch—stress can have such a profound physiological effect on the body that it may interfere with the body’s ability to recover and repair itself. In other words, 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, 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.
Strike a Balance
So, what does this research mean for you? It means you should pay attention to your stress levels and adjust accordingly. When the body is in a weakened state—as is often the case with stress—even “good” physical stress like exercise can lead to physical overload.
Don’t skip exercise, but do add extra recovery time. If you’re tired, stressed, and feeling extra sore after exercise, give yourself an extra day or two off between workouts to allow your body to fully recover and avoid injury.
Dr. Michael Boothby is a Board Certified Fort Worth Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Director of The Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Institute in Fort Worth Texas. Dr. Boothby may be reached at 817-529-1900.
Source: 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.