Wait…did I read that right, stopped working out? I know, it’s crazy for me to believe as well. I used to be a collegiate cheerleader, I spent over 4 hours a day, 6 days per week being active. I have never known anything but that because that is what my sport required from me. However, it wasn’t until I “retired” from collegiate cheerleading and started to work an 8-5 that I quickly learned just how harmful that had been for my health. The more educated I became through my supervised practice to become a Registered Dietitian, the more I learned about alternative health options and testing techniques. I began to research studies, read books, attend professional conferences, and even get the testing done myself.
Personally, I had the luxury of finding a physician that would test all of these things for myself to determine my baseline. Although most of my general serum labs such as blood sugar, lipid panel, thyroid, electrolytes, etc. came back within normal limits, my intracellular nutrient analysis did not (see image). How could this be, I eat a whole foods diet (and a lot of it) rich in organic fruits and vegetables, grass-fed meats, and very rarely enjoy processed foods or alcohol?! The sad truth is that our food supply today is not nearly what it once was. Even buying organic produce, you are getting a fraction of the vitamins and minerals that you would have 50 years ago. Despite this, I was chronically stressing my body day in and day out. Although I was only working out for about an hour-in-a-half, 5-6 days per week, this coupled with my life stress was clearly too much for my body to handle. My antioxidant and immune testing results came back SEVERELY depleted for my age group. Being that my own father suffered with cancer just 3 years ago, this was of huge concern to me since oxidative stress is the main culprit in chronic diseases like cancer. This opened my eyes that something needed to change and although I was eating a pristine diet and exercising daily, this clearly wasn’t working.
Here is what I have learned and how that influenced me to completely 180 my lifestyle.
We all have a different threshold. Some of us can tolerate extensive competitive sport training for many years, and it not harm our health. Others of us may become ill after training for just one race. There are many different reasons this may be different in everyone, but two of the most confounding variables are our genetics and our lifestyle. This may include SNP’s (single nucleotide polymorphisms) or even something as simple as our daily habits. The scariest part of all is that I never felt any of this. I felt great, I slept well, and never suffered from nagging headaches or severe GI issues. I thought I wasn’t fatigued, I figured being exhausted after a workout and needing coffee at 3 pm was just normal in a hard-working type lifestyle. Boy was I wrong…
Stress when stressed is a recipe for disaster. Simply put, exercise is a stressor on our body. Long duration physical activity is the most stressful, whereas short duration, such as sprinting or resistance training, can be considered much less stressful on our body. There is a great deal of research out there even showing the body composition benefits of short burst physical activity. Working out when stressed further increases our cortisol levels and results in poor quality workouts, increased recovery time, and decreased muscle building.
Moving is most important. It doesn’t matter what you do for an hour in the gym if the rest of your 23 hours a day are spent sitting on a chair. Non-exercise Activity Thermogenesis or NEAT plays a huge role in our daily energy expenditure. Have you ever noticed that slim people typically never sit still and lead much more active lifestyles than their overweight counterparts? It is estimated that NEAT can account for a difference of about 350 calories a day. If you work a desk job, there are many steps you can take to increase your daily NEAT, such as creating a stand-up or bosu ball desk option, taking a walking break every hour of work, or even just “fidgeting”more while sitting. It should be noted that standing itself is not simply better than sitting. You should still be moving either way. That is why the bosu ball sitting option or a balance board (standing option) are best!
There is life beyond physical activity. Exercise will always be near and dear to my heart and something that I hope to one day be able to do more of again. However, I have learned in my time “off” that there is so much more to life than just exercise. Athletes commonly get caught up in the idea of eating well simply just to support their activity. What about eating well to prevent disease or improve brain functioning so that you can be more productive in daily life? Nutrition is important in ALL of these instances, but I think we too commonly get caught up in the idea that nutrition and exercise HAVE to go hand-in-hand, when they don’t.
So are you telling me to never work out again? NO! I still believe daily exercise and movement is super important for general health, disease prevention, cognition, stress-reduction, and more. However, I believe there is a fine line between its benefit and its harm. If you know that you are currently under a great deal of stress at work or with life in general, dialing back on your physical activity may be more of benefit to you. If you are sacrificing a solid 7-9 hours of sleep every night just to work out before work in the morning, it may benefit you more to instead sleep in and skip your morning workout some days.
Remember, your hormones rule all. If your hormones aren’t happy, then you are running an uphill battle. Far too often when we are stuck in a weight loss plateau it’s not because of lack of physical activity or our nutrition, it’s due to stress and hormonal imbalances that are preventing us from shedding those unwanted pounds.
I would love to hear what your experience is with life stress and physical activity. Does it help you or have you noticed it just makes matters worse?