When you’re feeling frustrated, drained, or anxious, there’s nothing better than a sweat session to squash all those crappy feelings. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a better anxiety buster than exercise. But can stress bust your workout? “Job worries, family problems, school stress—these all get in the way of your physical progress and your ability to recover,” says Alexander Koch, Ph.D., CSCS, Associate Professor of Health and Exercise Science at Lenoir-Rhyne University. Here’s what happens when you’re on edge.
1. Motivation Plummets
Pressure on? Most of us run for the couch to take a load off. Yale researchers, who looked at 168 studies on stress and exercise, found that three fourths of us exercise less and become more sedentary when we’re stressed. “So many of us think in an all or nothing mindset, but light exercise—like a five to ten minute walk over lunch—can have a profound impact on your mood,” says Koch. (It may give you enough of a boost that you feel like walking all the way to the gym.)
2. Your Resources Become Depleted
Stress can make it feel like you’re running on a low tank at all times. It disrupts energizing sleep (43 percent of adults say stress has caused them to lie awake at night in the past month), it can squash testosterone production (needed to build muscles), and it can even leave you with headaches or gastrointestinal pains—issues that’ll keep any guy miles away from the treadmill.
3. Your Performance Suffers
A little adrenaline can work in your favor in the short term: “Your heart rate elevates, oxygen moves throughout the body better, and energy stores fuel your movement,” says Koch. But when there’s an overload of strain on your brain, muscles tense up and your motor skills can go haywire. “Too much stress can leave you with poor coordination or things like shaky hands,” says Koch. Find a way to get centered—either through meditation, or some deep breathing—to avoid rolling an ankle or dropping a 20lb weight on your big toe.
4. Recovery Stalls
A study in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that people who were stressed felt more sore, tired, and low on energy 24 hours after doing strenuous resistance training. “The stress hormone cortisol can lower your immune function, which delays tissue repair and keeps your energy stores from recharging,” says Koch. “It won’t do any good to push heavily if you’re going through something or overly tired. I send my athletes home or we modify the workout,” says Koch.
5. There's More Fat to Fight
Chronic stress can trigger cravings for high-fat, high-sugar foods—and fewer of the good quality protein and carbs that make muscles grow stronger, says Koch. (Cortisol tricks our body into thinking we need to replenish energy sources that aren’t empty, and then encourages fat storage, especially around the gut.) So even if you are getting to the gym, the weight may still pile on. Start the day right with a protein-packed breakfast that’ll leave you full, energized, and away from the donuts.