When to Work Out and When to Work In
From intense workouts to gentle yoga and Pilates sessions, with the endless exercise options and advice available, it can be tricky to determine which type of activity our body truly needs. We asked holistic wellness expert, Chek practitioner and Pilates master trainer, Sandy Leo, to explain the intricacies of the “movement maze”.
Today, our choices for getting our daily dose of exercise are endless, ranging from hard-core, intense workout styles (think F45, F75 or Cross Fit), weight workouts at the gym and group exercise classes such as the martial arts-inspired Body Combat, to training-intensive activities like athletics and team sports such as netball. Add to that, the wide selection of more low-key practices – yoga, Pilates, power walking, meditation, aqua aerobics et al. And the list goes on…
So how do we know when and what type of exercise to do, and whether the activity we choose is actually what our body needs? “The truth is, every day is a different day for our body and mind depending on the stress it is coping with at any given time,” explains Sandy Leo. “Therefore, one exercise style does not fit all. Instead, the type and intensity of exercise we choose should always be in sync with the stress levels we experience each day, along with our physical, psychological and emotional needs.”
To understand this concept, let’s first talk about how stress works and how it affects our being.
UNDERSTANDING STRESS, ITS PURPOSE AND MODERN-DAY RESPONSES
Stress is an important function of the human body – it was originally designed to send us into “fight and flight” mode to help us survive and overcome physical threats, such as being chased by a wild animal. Fast-forward from the Stone Age to today though, it is very unlikely that we will experience this type of threat in the 21st century, so more often than not, stress is an emergency response to a perceived threat, rather than an actual physical emergency!
“It is essential to acknowledge that our body does not know where stress comes from,” Sandy adds. “All it knows is that it is stressed.” This can include mental stress, due to a hectic working life, emotional stress, say from losing a loved one – and even physical stress from doing a strenuous workout. It also includes stress caused by nutritional deficiencies, and toxic overload due to products used for cleaning, medications, cosmetics and alcohol.
Sandy points out that regardless of the kind of stress it is under, our body will react accordingly by showing up one or more of the following symptoms: hormonal imbalances and exhaustion of the adrenal glands (involved in releasing the stress-regulating hormone, cortisol); joint inflammation, bloating, dehydration, depression, irritability, mood swings, the inability to cope, constipation, headaches and lack of libido.
“So, in a physical sense, if we indulge in a full-on group fitness class or a ten-kilometre run on a day when we experience these symptoms, we can do more damage than good to our bodies. We can even put on weight as a result.” This, Sandy explains, is because exercise then adds excessive load on our adrenal glands, which releases the stress-regulating and fat-storing hormone, cortisol that is responsible for sending our body into survival (fight or flight) mode in the case of an “emergency”. In evolutionary terms, this means one thing to the body: prepare to fight, or store fat in a time of famine.
Sandy further explains that when our body goes into this “stressed” state, it will limit the energy it delivers to our organs and muscles, and thereby defer our sleep and the repair of these organs until the “perceived disaster” has passed, “As a result, feelings of pain, anxiety, anger and depression become elevated at the expense of our cognition, memory and energy, which are all struggling!”
These costly things our body must do to respond effectively to the highly stressed state it perceives can be harmful, Sandy says. “If lifestyle, nutrition and exercise choices are not changed to reduce this load, then long term, the body is most likely to respond with a disease.” This can include an autoimmune disorder or gut issues (as your gut cannot properly absorb, use nutrition, or eliminate), leading to constipation or diarrhoea. “The mess continues until you get a proper diagnosis, which normally stems from stress and inflammation.”
THE EFFECTS OF INCREASED AND REDUCED STRESS ON OUR BODIES
- When our stress levels are reduced, our organs have time to recover and prepare for future stressful events, leading to a better ability to cope with life physically, emotionally and mentally.
- If stress levels remain high, the ability of the adrenal glands to produce cortisol and also Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) will diminish. In women, DHEA is an important source of the hormone oestrogen – it provides about 75 percent of oestrogens before menopause and 100 percent of oestrogens in the body after peri-menopause. “Balancing oestrogen at this stage of a woman’s life is imperative to maintaining the function of all organs, controlling weight and slowing aging,” Sandy says.
- Reoccurring infections such as bladder (UTIs), viruses and flus that don’t heal, as well as lingering coughs are all indications of a stressed immune system and ultimately, adrenal fatigue within the body.
- There is a strong link between stress and cancer, as any kind of stress (including exercise) creates an environment for cancer cells to grow. It does this by suppressing the numbers of natural cancer-killing cells, and by increasing the concentrations of so-called glucocorticoids, which facilitate the growth of a capillary network to the tumour, a process called angiogenesis.
WHEN TO WORK OUT
- You have had adequate sleep for your age and daily output (six to eight hours).
- You are well hydrated – drinking filtered water to the equivalent of half of your body weight divided by ten is essential. In other words: if you weigh 60 kilograms, consume three litres per day, for 80 kilos, four litres per day and so on. Oh, and add to that another 750ml per day if you consume alcohol, more than three coffees, take medications or have worked out for longer than one hour.
- You have no illness, virus (such as the flu) or infection that your body is fighting.
- You are not suffering from sore joints and inflammation from previous exercise, or an auto-immune diseasesuch as psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease and of course, the new age fibromyalgia (which purely means you’re in pain and inflammation without a reason).
- You have not had an overly stressful day where you feel tension and anxiety making you snappy and irritable.
- You are not going through an emotionally stressful experience such as the death of a loved one, divorce, job dispute or relationship breakup.
- You have eaten every three hours leading up to exercise and fuelled your body with nutritious food such as good-quality lean protein and plenty of clean, organic vegetables and fruit.
- You have not been travelling overseas over which time your natural circadian rhythms (sleeping patterns and times) may have been disturbed.
- You have just taken on a new job demanding mental or physical capacity that you are not used to yet.
WHEN TO WORK IN
If more than three of the above scenarios apply to you, Sandy advises avoiding excessive workouts such as long endurance or strength sessions of any nature. “These will only upset your cortisol levels and place further stress on your adrenals, which is likely to disturb your sleep, hamper your body’s ability to repair itself and predispose you to disease.”
Rather than going hard out in the exercise department, this is the time to “work in” and enjoy one or more of the following activities. Not only will they improve the health of your heart and mind but they will also help your adrenals and immune system to recover, restore and rebuild, and reduce your risk of diseases such as cancer.
Sandy’s inspirations for low-stress “work ins”:
- Find a restorative, yin or gentle hatha yoga class, in an intimate group setting or via an online app like Gaia or YouTube channel. Make sure you choose qualified instructors who incorporate breath work and modifications for all abilities to follow. Remember to work at your own pace and be patient with your body and mind.
- Check out mat Pilates classes designed for all levels. It works wonders for promoting core strength, correct posture, balance, body tone, proper breathing and relieving lumbar and thoracic pain.
- Go for a beach or bush walk for 30 minutes up to an hour – barefoot if possible, to earth yourself. Put your headphones on and listen to soothing soul music or an uplifting educational podcast to help you unwind.
- Meditate by sitting on a rock at the beach or lying down in a peaceful setting at home. Practice stillness by deep breathing for up to half an hour or enjoying a guided meditation on your phone. There are many wonderful meditation apps to choose from, such as Giant Mind, Calm or Boho Beautiful.
- Mow the lawns or tend to your gardens for a therapeutic boost.
- Go for a gentle bike ride if you have sore joints or knees. Ride for 20 minutes plus if your goal is to lose weight, but don’t pedal so hard that you get out of breath to make sure you’re working at a level where your heart, mind and body are in a good conversation with one another.
- Swim a few lengths at the beach or in a pool, or opt for a standup paddleboard session and feel the thrill and chill of being out on the water, and in sync with Mother Nature.
The moral of the exercise story,according to Sandy: “To prevent illness and ensure that we stay fit, functional and feeling fabulous long term, it is essential to fine-tune our awareness of our body’s changing needs and exercise in accordance with our stress levels. This means: choosing “workouts” or “work ins” wisely so they’ll serve us for life, not the moment.”
Holistic wellness coach, Chek practitioner and Pilates master trainer Sandy Leo has 30 years’ experience in all aspects of fitness, health & wellbeing. hello.sandyleo.com