Exercise & Stress

by Barney St Anton in Nutrition | Training

stress | exercise | personal trainer


  • Only so much stress the body can handle at once before negative effects
  • Decreased performance
  • Mood
  • Sex drive
  • Look at exercise stress to the body and give you practical tips on how to overcome
  • Think of your body as a cup and stress as water. Your cup can only handle so much water before it begins to overflow. Stress can come from many different taps (stressors) in including: Exercise, Nutrition & psychological factors.


Training Volume

Exercise has many positive effects that benefit our fitness levels, body composition and overall health. For training adaptations to take place our body must first withstand skeletal muscle damage, increased heart rate and changes in hormonal environments. Whilst these stressors may not make us feel psychologically “stressed” they do place physical stress on our muscles, bones and central nervous system that our bodies must react to.

The amount of exercise induced stress is influenced by factors such as exercise intensity, duration of workout and the frequency of training throughout the week. Those who have higher volumes of training or a higher average intensity will accumulate the most exercise stress.

As discussed above, your body is only able to respond to a certain amount of stress at any one time. Therefore, there comes a point of diminishing returns where more exercise does not become productive and can negatively impact training adaptations. This is known as your maximal recoverable volume. The majority of your training should be completed slightly below this level where you can induce the most amount of stress on your body to cause training adaptations without overfilling your cup and spilling in to your recovery capacity.

So how much work do I need to do? There’s no easy answer to that other than try to do as much as you can each week. If at the end of the week you felt like you could have done more, then increase your activity levels by 30 – 60 minutes next week. If you begin to feel fatigued, run down and unmotivated by all your training then considering dropping 30 – 60 minutes the following week. Follow this approach for a few weeks and you will soon gain an understanding of how much exercise you can handle given your lifestyle and diet.

High Intensity Training

Some research suggests that higher intensity training may be more effective for gaining strength, improving speed and maximizing power. However, these benefits come at a cost and that is the increased demands on the central nervous system following this training. Your central nervous system loves carbohydrates. Muscles are able to adapt to using either carbohydrates or fats as a fuel source but your brain/central nervous system just loves carbs. So much so that it will produce ketone bodies for fuel if you do not consume enough carbohydrate.

This isn’t necessarily an issue if you are consuming enough carbohydrate in your diet (this amount will differ between individuals and is best worked out through trial and error). However, a common diet protocol is to reduce carbohydrate intake when your primary goal is to decrease body fat % and overall body mass. If carbohydrates fall too low but training intensity remains high the central nervous system will quickly burn out. A practical tip here is to periodically increase carbohydrate intake and to “refeed” your body. I recommend refeeding every day days and increasing your caloric intake to maintenance level by increasing carbohydrate intake. It’s important to note you may gain some weight following this, but it will likely be due to increased muscle glycogen or water retention NOT excess fat accumulation. Personally I will replace my breakfast of 5 eggs on granary toast for bacon on pancakes as my refeed meal. The key point here to is not go too crazy and binge, but to reintroduce enough carbohydrate for your body to keep ticking over.

Diet & Psychological Stress

Your dietary intake does not just influence your exercise performance and physical appearance; it plays a crucial role in your mental health and wellbeing. As a nutritionist and PT I have seen the effects of eating disorders first hand and I strongly believe maintaining a positive relationship with food is crucial.

When I ask clients how their diet is going I am amazed at how many people start by saying “I’ve cut out bread, pasta, sugar …”. It’s so easy for us to be fixated on removing elements of our diet we believe are unhealthy. This approach is basically a form of self-sabotage, unnecessarily starving ourselves of the foods we enjoy for no other reason than creating a challenge and stress for ourselves to overcome. Hardcore is not always smart, or the best way for you.

When working with clients I like to first focus on which foods we can add/swap in to address deficiencies and improve health. I want my clients to enjoy their food whilst making the most progress possible to avoid accumulating more stress. Sure, you’re not going to be able to eat as many biscuits as you might like but I’m certainly not going to tell you to NEVER eat them ever again.

Now that we’ve covered your mindset towards food, let me address some specific tips you can take on board that may help combat stress.

Firstly, consider increasing your intake of lower GI carbohydrates such as spaghetti, sweet potato and brown rice. These carbohydrate sources are proportionally lower in sugar and their content is released slowly in to the blood stream helping to keep levels stable. Avoiding sudden rushes and crashes in blood sugar levels is key for dealing with stressful situations.

Secondly, aim to increase your daily intake of anti-oxidants such as vitamin C and D. This will help to combat the stress caused by free radicals as a results of hard training. Consuming Vitamin D in particular is crucial in the winter months due to our primary source being exposure to the sun. If you work at a desk or really any indoor job 9:00am – 5:00pm you may not see any sunlight for 3 months of the year which will mean you vitamin D intake will take a huge hit. It’s difficult to recommend specific requirements; however I would suggest purchasing a supplement and following individual brand guidelines.

Lastly, switching your morning coffee for a decaf variant can be a great stress combating move. Ok, I hear you, I’m crazy, but hear me out… Caffeine is a stimulant and so is often used to spike energy in a matter that doesn’t necessarily require calories unless you take sugar and milk in your mug. However, if you are going through a particularly stressful time relying on caffeine can lead to irregular energy levels throughout the day typically characterised by a crash after lunch time. This may result in less productivity, mental concentration and increased stress levels. I would recommend starting off by swapping your mid-late morning coffee to a decaf variation to prevent this crash and consider further swaps if necessary.