National Council on Strength & Fitness
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The Impact of Stress on Health and Performance

Most people recognize that stress is not healthy but most fail to realize the significant impact stress can have on both physiological and psychological well-being. Estimates vary, but experts believe about 70% of doctor visits and 80% of serious illnesses may be exacerbated or linked to stress. Whether it is an acute bout of frustration, as experienced when cut off in traffic, or a major life event such as a divorce, losing one’s job, or being diagnosed with a disease, stress can negatively affect all systems of the human body. Interestingly, even though stress is an innate response it varies by person. Stress is heavily rooted in perception; one individual’s unpleasant experience can be another’s enjoyable undertaking. Essentially, stress can produce positive or negative metabolic and hormonal responses based on the internal environment and the balance maintained between the stress itself and recovery measures to attenuate its response (e.g., proper nutrition, sleep, and stress management techniques). Adequate stress, whether physical or mental, is needed to promote adaptations in a bodily system; while excessive stress results in systemic breakdown. Eustress is the term utilized to describe appropriate stress routinely applied for the provision of positive adaptive outcomes; distress describes an excessive level of stress that promotes negative outcomes.


The hormones released during an acute or chronic stress response ultimately dictate the outcome. The reaction to an acute stress, commonly known as the “fight or flight” response, involves the rapid release of adrenal hormones to increase immediately available energy (i.e., blood sugar) via the breakdown and liberation of glycogen from the liver as well as triglycerides and amino acids. Blood pressure also increases in an acute fashion. This mechanism is meant to protect or ready the human body for changes in movement intensity; the hormonally-liberated energy will help the individual confront the given stress, or flee from it. This action is driven by the hypothalamus, an area of the brain that can send neurotransmitters programmed to promote excitation to the adrenal glands. At the basic level the acute response ensured primitive human survival in varied environments; in modern society, safety and intensity are much more controlled. Therefore, most of the time we see the response occurring in a more chronic fashion such as worrying about uncontrollable, upcoming issues or challenges such as an exam, potential layoff, or financial uncertainty. This constant liberation of adrenal hormones creates a saturated hormonal milieu. The available energy is not consumed and there is no stimulus that employs the benefits of the sympathetic hormones. Cortisol and epinephrine are useful during exercise but consequential when produced without physical activity such as during the situations just described.


When hormones are produced in a manner such as those associated with psychological chronic stress they produce several negative effects according to research. Interestingly appropriate exercise can, to a certain extent, actually minimize all of the negative effects of stress when applied in a healthy program.


Clearly the best way to deal with stress is to avoid it in the first place. Certainly it is impossible to avoid all stress, and even if it was this would also be unhealthy. Exercise and physical activity provide positive outcomes when the training volume is appropriate. Negative stress (distress) is the type to avoid. Clinicians suggest one way to avoid significant distress is identify where it is coming from. Stress diaries are used to identify the people, locations, situations, and times that the stress occurs. In many cases, people do not realize the exact causes and frequency of stress in their lives. Oftentimes there are certain individuals and locations that create the worst stress responses. Once realized, one must cut the negatives; relationships and environments can be severed as easily as new ones can be made. Stress can also be neutralized; when stress accumulates, it should be removed in exchange for something that is considered pleasurable. This should not include alcohol-related situations as experts suggest this further fuels stress responses rather than diffusing them. Alcohol masks relaxation, so “drinking stress away” simply adds new stress of a physical nature. Activities research suggests may attenuate distress include yoga, tai chi, specific breathing methods, and progressive muscle relaxation. Likewise taking a nature walk, helping others, and playing games that induce laughter and group camaraderie all hold merit for reducing stress.