Ultimate stress-busting workout | Precision Nutrition

Ultimate stress-busting workout

By John Berardi, Ph.D.

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At Precision Nutrition, we have a few exercise and nutrition strategies for dealing with stressed out folks who want to be fit and healthy but who don’t want to add to their stress with their workout sessions.

Just the other day I received an email from a journalist, specifically the editor of a fitness magazine.

We’re working on a piece for an upcoming issue about how stress can cause weight gain. And we want to include the ultimate stress-busting workout—5 moves that can be done sequentially, as a circuit, or a “timed circuit.”

The idea is that the moves are very demanding, prompting an adrenaline rush, which, ultimately, can help you deal in stressful situations in everyday life.

I’d love for you to be the expert for the piece and source for the moves, if that’s something you think you can provide in the next couple of days.

I wanted to share this email with you because I think it illustrates a fundamental misconception when it comes to stress and exercise.

My email response…

I’d be happy to help with this – thanks for thinking of me. However, I do have a few comments on the story idea:

1) Stress is, specifically, a sympathetic nervous system response to mental, physical, etc. challenges in life.

Therefore, when “stressed” we’re really experiencing a sympathetic overload which manifests in a high heart rate, an abundant cortisol release by the body, and high concentrations of epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline) in the blood.

2) As a result of this, when people have lots of “outside” stress in their lives, doing more high intensity exercise (which is actually another major stressor, leading to the same effects – high heart rate, cortisol release, and epi/norepi in the blood) is never the prescription.

So, in essence, the prescription for dealing with stress isn’t more stress in the gym.

3) While a baseline of high intensity exercise is okay during periods of high stress, balancing this plan out with PARAsympathetic activity is paramount.

Parasympathetic activity includes: meditation, meditative yoga, low intensity cardio activity, etc.

4) In the end, my prescription for the “ultimate stress busting workout” for the average person would be 2-3 days per week of strength and/or interval exercise and 2-3 days per week of low intensity activity such as walking, bike riding, meditative yoga, etc. It we can incorporate this angle, I can definitely be involved.

As far as the fat gain angle, it’s important to note that it’s not so much the stress that causes weight gain. It’s people’s responses to that stress.

For example, when stressed, night time cortisol levels are high. When this occurs, it’s very difficult to get to sleep. When folks aren’t sleeping they end up eating more during the day and eating more processed/sugary carbohydrates.

In addition, during stressful periods, folks typically miss out on meals because they’re busy and because their hormonal status blunts hunger. However, unfortunately, because they skip meals during the day, they end up binging – again on high sugar/processed foods.

So it’s this combination of no sleep, no hunger, carb cravings, and binging that brings on the weight gain.

We at PN have a few strategies for dealing with this. Here are our top 3:

Stress strategy #1

First, supplementation with phosphatidylserine reduces evening cortisol and helps folks get to sleep. This cuts down on binges and carb cravings.

Stress Strategy #2

Second, we incorporate parasympathetic activities to balance out the sympathetic responses to stress. This reduces heart rate, cortisol, and epi- and nor-epi concentrations in the body. It also decreases these feelings of “stress.”

Stress Strategy #3

Finally, we make sure they’re eating a healthy meal every 3-4 hours, reducing binging behaviors.

This is what it takes to prevent stress-related weight gain.

Hopefully this helps clarify for you all just how stress plays a part in weight gain and what you can do about it.  As far as my “ultimate stress busting workout” – it would look something like this.

Day 1 – Strength/Sympathetic

Exercise 1 – Barbell Bench Press 8 sets of 3 repetitions
Exercise 2 – Seated Rows 8 sets of 3 repetitions
Exercise 3 – Push Ups 2 sets of 10 repetitions
Exercise 4 – Inverted Rows 2 sets of 10 repetitions
Exercise 5 – Abdominal Planks 2 sets of 30 seconds

Perform all sets of a given exercise before moving on to the next. Rest 1 minute between sets. This workout should take no longer than 50 minutes.

Day 2 – Recovery/Parasympathetic

30-60 minutes of low intensity activity done outdoors or in a comfortable setting.

Examples include walking or bike riding at a park or on the beach, hiking, cross country skiing, etc. Listen to very relaxing music on your iPod or just listen to the sounds of silence. Breathe deeply and keep heart rate below 70% of your max. Heart rate max is calculated as 220-your age.

Day 3 – Circuit/Sympathetic

Exercise 1 – Body weight squat jumps for 20 seconds (hands behind head, squat down, jump up)
Exercise 2 – T-push ups for 20 seconds
Exercise 3 – Jump rope for 20 seconds (if you don’t have a rope, fake it)
Exercise 4 – Spiderman pushups for 20 seconds
Exercise 5 – Burpees for 20 seconds

You can do this at home, at the park, or at the gym. Perform exercises 1-5 one after the other with no rest. Take a 2 minute rest after exercise 5. Repeat the sequence 5 times. The workout should take no longer than 20 minutes.

Day 4 – Recovery/Parasympathetic

30-60 minutes of Hatha yoga, a type of yoga which tends to be slow-paced, meditative, and gentle.

Day 5 – Strength/Sympathetic

Exercise 1 – Dumbbell Suitcase Deadlift 8 sets of 3 repetitions
Exercise 2 – Dumbbell Split Squats 8 sets of 3 repetitions
Exercise 3 – Lying Leg Curls 2 sets of 10 repetitions
Exercise 4 – Walking Lunges 2 sets of 10 repetitions
Exercise 5 – Wood choppers 2 sets of 10 repetitions

Perform all sets of a given exercise before moving on to the next. Rest 1 minute between sets. This workout should take no longer than 50 minutes.

Day 6 – Recovery/Parasympathetic

30-60 minutes of low intensity activity done outdoors or in a comfortable setting.

Examples include walking or bike riding at a park or on the beach, hiking, cross country skiing, etc. Listen to very relaxing music on your iPod or just listen to the sounds of silence. Breathe deeply and keep heart rate below 70% of your max. Heart rate max is calculated as 220-your age.

Day 7 – Complete Rest/Parasympathetic

No physical activity.

Learn more

To learn more about making important improvements to your nutrition and exercise program, check out the following 5-day video courses.

They’re probably better than 90% of the seminars we’ve ever attended on the subjects of exercise and nutrition (and probably better than a few we’ve given ourselves, too).

The best part? They’re totally free.

To check out the free courses, just click one of the links below.