The problem with using exercise for stress management

We all know somebody, or are that person ourselves, who tell people they use exercise as an outlet for their stress. They need it for their head – and that is entirely understandable. Exercise effectively reduces stress and anxiety and provides an amazing feeling of well-being, both immediately short-term and oft-times into the long-term. However, that doesn’t make exercise a safe and effective treatment for stress and anxiety. Life IS stress, and learning how to deal with stress in a manner that can be performed time and again per day, day after day, week after week, is required – meditation, restorative yoga, going on a walk come to mind. Second, finding the true cause of unneeded stress and anxiety, finding the root of the problems causing these feelings is required. Using quick fixes is like applying a bandaid – it provides relief without treating the actual problem from the source. Exercise is not going to solve whatever problems one has in their lives that are causing undue stress and anxiety.

Some of the consequences for abusing exercise can lead up to health problems that can take years to go away; stress and wear-and-tear on connective tissue, a messed up thyroid, compromised immune system, altered or entirely missing menstruation in women, and general poor performance of the entire endocrine system, for example. Our body isn’t designed to withstand 24/7 redlining; like any machine, the harder and more frequently we use our body, the faster it will sustain injury and eventually shut down. Connective tissue, aka joints and ligaments, are oft-times overlooked components of our body by trainees who exercise too often. These tissues are less vascularized than muscle and so receive less blood (nutrients and water) and have less waste removed – in essence, they are unable to recover as quickly as muscle tissue. Not only does relying too much on exercise for stress management beat one up physically, it negatively impacts the entire endocrine system. The thyroid and immune system in particular are shot over time. It can even alter or shut down female menses.

Yet another issue with training for stress management is the fact that once a trainee begins exercising constantly, they are obviously not allowing proper recovery from subsequent workouts – meaning performance is not going to increase at all or for very long, and eventually regression can even occur. There are two ways to go about exercise: training for performance, or exercising to burn calories or get a pump. Training for performance indicates one is rested and ready to push the envelope, and exercising just for the sake of it means if you tried doing the workout of your training for performance self, it would absolutely crush and even hurt you because you aren’t allowing recovery time –instead you keep your CNS and PNS (central nervous system, peripheral nervous system) in a state of constant fatigue. And if you train simply for health? Training for health requires no more than 3 workouts per week and daily walking. Again, no reason to hit the gym 2x per day 5-7x per week.

At any rate, using a bandaid, be it exercise or booze, doesn’t fix the problem. Instead, we would be well served at making lasting changes in our lives that seek to efficiently and permanently decrease undue stress and anxiety. Chronic exercise for stress management, although effective in the short term and healthy in reasonable doses, is not a good practice. It results in further poor health, and detracts from effective training and attainment of goals. While obviously a healthier alternative than many other stress-relief outlets such as smoking, drinking, and recreational drug use, it is still not the answer. I get it, training makes me feel absolutely amazing and if I never trained, not only would I have ripped someone’s head off by now, but my life would be in shambles. I’ve been that guy who did 10+ workouts in a week, all if which were at least an hour long if not two.

That’s not the answer.