Ever since I first learned about the Hans Selye and the stress response of the human body I have been intrigued by the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Typically these systems are presented as if they are distinct, you are either in sympathetic (fight or flight) or parasympathetic (rest and digest) mode. The reality is that both systems work together all of the time to create an autonomic balance in the body. Physiologically the body works to maintain homeostasis, or balance within normal limits.
But wait… the media tells me that stress is bad, right? It causes heart attacks and cancer and high blood pressure, so we don’t need it, we need the rest and digest, parasympathetic, relaxed phase only, right?
Not so fast, it is not quite as simple as good or bad and cause and effect.
First of all, there is “good” stress (eustress) and “bad” stress (distress). Good things in our life, like getting a new job or getting married cause stress, but it is the good kind. Bad things, like losing a job or losing a loved one, cause stress; we cannot avoid the bad stress in our life. Now, if I was someone else, this blog would turn to be about how the bad stress makes us appreciate the good. Since this is me, this blog is about how the bad stress is happening, how do we handle it?
Second of all, the body responds to stress regardless of the cause. The autonomic nervous system cannot tell if it is physical stress from something like running a marathon or psychological stress like giving a presentation in front of a large audience. Both elicit the same response of increased heart rate and increased breathing, sweating, etc. That is one of the things that makes my research so interesting. Is an athlete having issues outside of sports that lead to a sympathetic response or is it just because of the lack of recovery from their training? The body doesn’t know, but if you keep running races or keep speaking in front of audiences, eventually your body understands the threat a little bit better and accommodates.
With stress we grow and change. Have you heard of how weight bearing exercise helps strengthen the bones and prevent osteoporosis? That is a physiological phenomenon called Wolf’s law (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wolff%27s_law). When we stress our bones, they adapt to the stress and get stronger. All exercise improvement comes from the SAID principle (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/SAID_principle), specific adaptation to imposed demands. That is why a workout becomes easier over time, unless we do something more to challenge ourselves. We need stress in our lives... to some extent.
If stress isn’t the problem, what IS the problem? The problem is how we manage the stress that comes our way. Instead of facing the stress and dealing with it, we let it pile up like laundry in the corner until it becomes so insurmountable that we have no idea whether to wash it all, throw it out or just go out into the world naked. Instead of preventing the stress from taking over by taking time for ourselves most days, we think we don’t have time away from the business of life or that we are being selfish if we don’t look after ourselves. Except when the stress becomes too much, our body forces us to shut down through things like illness. That stress shows us! Slow down or I will get you anyway!
Completing my PhD was extremely stressful, so I combated that stress by running (trying not to overtrain while studying under-recovery from exercise… talk about a plan!). Running became a great way for me to work out any potential problems as I often think best with my feet pounding the pavement. In fact, I “wrote” a good portion of this blog on my last run (and the rest of it in the local bagel shop). I added in yoga to help combat a good portion of the mental stress of writing and the physical stress of running. I created a plan for the stress that I knew was coming instead of giving it permission to take over.
Stress won’t go away. It can and will help us grow if we don’t let it consume us or cause us to become ill. Exercise is a great way to combat the daily stress in our lives. The next time you are faced with stress, consider running or walking or biking or swimming or Zumba-ing away from it. Let the body learn and grow and adapt. You will come back physically stronger and mentally stronger.
A few months ago I took a stack of magazines with me to the airport for a flight. One was a women’s fitness magazine, which had a list of the “best” exercises for fitness. I read it with a distinct eye roll and accompanying head shake. So here we go again with the myth of what is best. There is media and there is research. Always be careful when you read about research in glossy print.
According to the research bite, running short sprints was better than long distances for fitness, however this is where the media screws up the research. I am sure that is what the research reports, but I am also sure that the peer-reviewed article was not so simple in its conclusion that it could be expressed in less than a single sentence. For example, doing just one or two sprints does not put me in the kind of shape I need to complete a half marathon. A few sprints do not fit the recommendation of 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise in a week. Sprints are a great form of exercise, but before you commit to a short distance workout, revisit your goals. Do you hate cardio and prefer to lift weights? Yes, maybe incorporating some sprints in between sets will get your heart some healthy benefits. Go for it! But if your goal involves long, slow distance, you will need to put in the miles.
Another female in science jokingly posted a picture for a magazine that declared you are 8% stronger if you curse out loud. Man, why didn’t I think of that study for my dissertation! This conclusion was brightly placed in the middle of a page in Better Homes and Gardens, again leading to the misconception that you can swear your way to a better body (you can’t… but I do like the idea…). What I did learn from investigating this subject: swearing increased pain tolerance and heart rate and decreased perceived pain compared to not swearing (http://www.mzellner.com/page4/files/2009-stephens.pdf). I did find the research that I think Better Homes and Gardens is citing, but the conclusions were not as strong or as simple as expressed. In the research study the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) response was not deemed to be responsible for the increase in performance, and therefore they could not explain why it was happening.
It is no wonder we are confused when the media reports research, as it seems that for every pro- article there is an equally effective con article. A social science researcher actually found out that the majority of the research that goes public via the media is later proven to be not true. So how do you know who or what to trust when doing your own research? First of all consider the source. If it sounds too good to be true, like simply swearing or doing a small bit of exercise, know that they have probably left out some additional information. For those who want to be in the know, look for the primary article. If you are incredibly curious, go ahead and read the abstract, as it should have some more information. If you are incredibly ambitious, take the time to read the entire article and you will be surprised what you can learn. Or ask one of us professionals. I am always happy to share what I have learned!
Yes, I know… this is a blog about running and research and recovery written by an athletic trainer/massage therapist… why are we discussing a dietician… For starters, next to hydration and sleep, fuel is the next best thing for recovery (note, I almost never say food in this context because it is not about food so much as replacing energy that is used for exercise).
While giving my semesterly lecture to undergrad students about healthy sleep, I also give out quite a few crossovers from the information they hear from our director of sports nutrition, Coach Annie, the dietician. I try not to get too far out of my element in the fuel topics because I know just enough to be informed but not enough to be an expert, which is where I need the dietician in my life to be that expert and help me bridge the gap. There is so much information out there, but with her help I can sort through the relevant and give another voice to this important information.
Let’s start with college students and the dreaded freshman 15 (or sophomore 20) and how sleep deprivation comes into play with weight gain. College students have some of the most upside down schedules, especially student athletes with early classes or practices and late night social activities. Besides the fact that no one makes good food choices late at night (I mean really, who makes a salad or a bowl of fruit at midnight! Cold pizza, anyone? Chocolate cake? Cookies?), being sleep deprived alters the hunger hormones leaving us more likely to snack. Sleep deprivation is also associated with mood changes such as depression and with risk taking behaviors, which may or may not include poor choices in the fueling department. So if you are struggling with stress and weight gain, take a look at your sleeping habits and make sure you aren’t sleeping like a college student.
So where does my dietician come in? Some strategies to employ if someone is having trouble sleeping were quite familiar to the student athletes in the audience listening to my talk. Keeping to a regular meal schedule and having small meals throughout the day is a fueling strategy that they hear over and over from Coach Annie to help them perform, and it can help them sleep better as well. Having a snack of protein and carbohydrates, like cereal and milk, just before bed can help promote sleep. Protein before bed can also help to build muscle from the inside and recover from the training, so the bedtime snack is pulling double duty for the recovering athlete.
And what about the fuel choices that college student athletes are making? Doing some research for a grant, I was able to delve into some interesting facts about how the eating habits in our early adult lives influences the decisions we make later on in life. Those who are more engaged in preparing meals at home during their late teens and early twenties are more likely to engage in meal preparation later in life, less likely to eat fast food and more likely to have the appropriate number of servings of fruits and vegetables. Education in nutrition also leads to better eating habits. Those lucky enough to get sound bites from a registered dietician along with a display of appropriate food choices laid for the taking are presented with two of the tools to mold healthy eating habits in their young adult lives. If the research is correct, this will lead them to healthier choices as they move to the next stage of their life.
And about the food choices laid out for the athletes by our dietician, they are backed by exercise and sports science. I was talking with a football player one day about his exercise physiology class, what they were learning and how it applies to his sport and his future career as a coach. I started by asking him if he thought the strength and conditioning coach just blew his whistle or if there was an actual plan to what they were doing in their summer conditioning. He couldn't decide, so I prompted, what if he told you to run 2 miles? He wouldn’t, was the quick response. I bet you run at least 2 miles, I reminded him. “Yeah, but not all at once, we do quick sprints.” And what fuel are you using… the light bulb turned on for a second. “Carbs, which is what Coach Annie tells us to eat before practice.” (I would love to revel in my triumph on this one, but about a week later he couldn’t remember if it was carbs or fat he was burning, but he got there eventually)
We can’t be the experts on everything so we need to listen to the experts around us and take in what they say. Make refueling choices based on the science and not on what is popular in the media. While not everyone can keep a registered dietician around for those dietetic emergencies, it is nice for me to have one to impart her wisdom and make sure I always have access to fruit snacks and animal crackers for my runs.
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