Say what????? I know it sounds like I’m crazy! We’re supposed to eat healthy, exercise more etc etc, but bear with me…..
Imagine you’re in the sweltering heat, you notice a wild animal from the corner of your eye and all of a sudden your heart is pounding, cortisol and adrenaline coursing through your veins. In that instant you analyse the situation, you know you’re in danger, you grab your baby and run for your life, holding on to him, and using every ounce of energy you have to escape the imminent danger you face. You keep going as hard as you can, and as you slowly turn around to check on the situation you realize you outmaneuvered the animal and somehow managed to escape being attacked! You slow down, catch your breath, grateful to have survived. Your body is flooded with endorphins, dopamine, oxytocin because you and your baby are safe. You feel relief and feel great knowing you’re free of danger….. your heart rate begins to normalize, blood pressure comes back down until you are back in a resting state.
Now just imagine….
It’s 8:35, you wake up late having somehow slept through the alarm, and pounce out of bed. You’re going to be late for an important presentation to your boss who is flying in for this! Yikes! You know you’re gonna be in trouble! Your heart is pounding, cortisol and adrenaline rush through your body as you quickly rush to get ready. You scarf down some food but your stomach is in knots and you’re panicked, now you can’t find your keys! You scramble once you do find them and run out the door, you’re racing in traffic, getting angrier at the cars in rush hour that are keeping you from making your meeting. You run into the office and realize your boss rescheduled the meeting to the afternoon. You fall to your seat, take a huge breathe and feel a wave of relief pass over you. Your heart rate and blood pressure drops, you feel a temporary rush of endorphins as dopamine floods your brain.
OK, so both are crazy examples but what I want you to see is that they are identical physiological responses in your body. It didn’t matter what the cause was: literally running for your life or just running late for work. Either way the body was experiencing the same chemicals coursing through your body affecting its physiology, metabolism, hormones, neurotransmitters and more.
Our stress response
Our body’s are remarkably well adapted at adjusting and reacting to stress in an appropriate manner. We can perfectly handle the sudden stressors and re-calibrate once the stressor or danger is no longer present. The problem arises when we repeatedly subject ourselves to the impact of stress. Unfortunately we live in an environment where we are constantly in fight or flight because we live in a go-go, do-do, more now world of competing demands from school, caring for children and parents, activities, long working hours, pushing ourselves to the limit, over committing, deadlines galore! Eventually that ability to manage the stress effectively diminishes and it begins to take a negative toll on our body.
We are constantly jumping from one real or perceived crisis to another, with no chance for our body to re-center and find itself in balance and get back to it’s default parasympathetic state (rest and digest mode).
The bottom line is the body cannot live in both a sympathetic dominant state and a parasympathetic dominant state. It’s just physiologically not possible. We all want to live a fully vibrant, energetic, life but it’s not compatible with the reality of a life with modern stressors. We can’t expect health to be the outcome when we live in fight or flight mode. It’s fundamentally at odds.
When we are in a sympathetic dominant (fight or flight) state it signals the body to prioritize survival over thriving. So when we are in a state of chronic stress we don’t need to digest well, reproduce, sleep well because as far as the body is concerned it is fighting for its life and that’s the least of it’s concerns! The priority is survival so our blood glucose increases, our blood pressure increases, and cortisol levels rise.
So what about exercise?
Now, I want to make it clear that healthy and safe movement and activity is an incredibly critical aspect of staying healthy and avoiding dis-ease. However, what type and how much exercise someone should undertake is a very individualized thing. There is no such thing as a one size fits all exercise plan and it’s why I stay far away from blanket recommendations.
But I’m not just talking about extreme exercising either. For some people, even mild to moderate exercise can be quite detrimental to the body. It’s easy to fall into the thinking that well if exercise is good, more must be better, but like most things in life that’s just not true. When we exercise and repeatedly push our body into a fight or flight state we are dealing with the exact same scenario as above as far as our body’s physiological experience. Our body does not know if we are exercising for fun or we are running for our life. The same hormones, neurotransmitters and messages are involved,the same responses play out.
When we subject ourselves to exercise excess (as perceived by our body) our body in it’s infinite wisdom goes into protection mode. It prioritizes the body functions that are necessary for survival like priming itself for running, and increasing blood sugar to provide the energy for it, and increasing blood pressure to pump sufficient blood, and it de-prioritizes those that are “unnecessary” in the moment like immune function, sleeping, digesting food, reproducing, etc (Hint: these are all functions critical for long term wellness).
So lets say this pattern of exercise has been going on for a long time…..
Ironically, we actually feel good so we continue to exercise because we experience the euphoria post workout! The reality is you’re getting a healthy hit of a dose of dopamine because you just “survived the emergency”.
The long term consequences of living in a fight or flight state can be quite harmful. Some of the most common ones I see are:
* digestive and gut issues
* hormone dysregulation
* sleep issues
* frequently getting sick
So what am I suggesting?
Well I’m certainly not advocating going to the other extreme and becoming a couch potato. But there’s something to be said for safe movement. It is important to balance strength training, flexibility, cardio, interval training and various types of workouts. The most critical part is weaving in adequate rest and recovery periods.
More than anything the bottom line is to stay physically active through functional movement. Just build in movement into your daily routines: take the stairs, park at the back of the parking lot, play with your kids, add in bursts of activity throughout your day if you have a sedentary desk job. Inactivity and a sedentary life is absolutely associated with higher incidences of cardiovascular disease and also death by other causes. Reaping the benefits of movement doesn’t mean you have to work out hard core every day of the week.
So is exercise hurting you? Here are some questions to ask yourself……..
* Do you exercise religiously and push yourself even if you don’t feel good?
* Do you feel a high from exercising that you thrive on? Do you feel withdrawal symptoms if you don’t get to exercise?
* Are you experiencing fatigue and energy levels are up and down through the day?
* Do you have mood fluctuations, hormone imbalance, stubborn weight you just can’t lose or experiencing the heartache of infertility?
* Do you have unexplained gut and digestive issues?
The most important thing you can do is really listen to your body and what it’s trying to tell you. Certain forms of exercise may not be suited to your individual body and what it needs. The one thing you’re doing to improve your health may just be the thing that’s creating more havoc.