8 February 2019
How To Reduce Stress
In my last blog post, I argued that stress is best understood as not being inherently detrimental. Of course, this doesn’t mean stress is inherently beneficial, and ti’s best understood as being beneficial with moderate exposure. Today’s culture, promoting as it does perpetual overwork and undersleeping, combined with the personal struggles we all experience, leads…
In my last blog post, I argued that stress is best understood as not being inherently detrimental. Of course, this doesn’t mean stress is inherently beneficial, and ti’s best understood as being beneficial with moderate exposure. Today’s culture, promoting as it does perpetual overwork and undersleeping, combined with the personal struggles we all experience, leads to excessive stress being a common occurrence. As such, in this post I’ll speak to stress reduction.
I think it might first be helpful to suggest that stress reduction need not be overly sophisticated. In looking at the literature on this topic to which I’ve been exposed, it’s become apparent there is a strong association between subjective measures of stress, anxiety, and depression, and objective measures such as plasma cortisol. As such, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that if a given activity, mental technique, supplement, or otherwise causes you to feel less stressed, you’re effectively less stressed and need not consider the issue further (barring simply being curious).
1. Resistance Training
My first suggestion would be resistance training. Truthfully, I’m not familiar with the mechanism by which lifting causes stress reduction, but if we treat depression and anxiety as proxies for stress, and consider the strong evidence for resistance training improving these conditions, I think we have a good scientific basis for using lifting for stress reduction. In addition, I think this is amply anecdotally supported, especially for lifelong lifters. In terms of specific practical recommendations, I’d suggest an absolute minimum of two weekly sessions of 30+ minutes each, as this aligns with the literature showing decreased rates of metabolic syndrome in persons who perform an hour or more of resistance training per week. I’d note that lifting seems to have acute (immediate and temporary) effects on stress, and to this end, the highly stressed person might be better off training more often. With that said, you also need consider the potential stress involved in finding the time to train, prepare to lift, make it to the gym, actually train, etc, and thus there is a balance to be found here in terms of the ideal number of weekly sessions. Personally, if the goal is stress reduction and general wellbeing rather than the optimization of strength or muscle gain, I would suggest a maximum of four weekly sessions in a Train / Train / Rest / Train / Train / Rest / Rest format, as this results in the trainee lifting most days of the week but never having to train more than two days in a row. In terms of workout duration, ideally you’ll be shooting for ~45 minutes or otherwise whatever is most convenient for you. Remember: the goal here is to get in, do something to allow you to feel better, and get out; marathon workouts, unless you have the extra time, energy, and recovery resources for them, will probably do more harm than good.
I’d also suggest the additional of cardio. Per the literature, resistance training and cardio do appear to have overlapping benefits (for example, the aforementioned reduction in risk of developing metabolic syndrome), but this isn’t to say they operate through the exact same mechanisms or don’t have additive effects. Anecdotally, cardiovascular exercise, especially of a low intensity performed outside (read: walking outside) seems to have an independent effect on stress. Now, I’ll happily acknowledge there are going to be interindividual differences here, with some individuals so detesting any form of cardio that their stress will increase if they perform it (for the record, though, I think a lot of this is nocebo – folks tell themselves cardio sucks, so it sucks). However, as a trainee and coach, I feel comfortable saying that most people will perceive a reduction in stress resulting from cardio, provided it’s of a type they enjoy and not overly frequent or demanding in terms of intensity or duration. In wanting to give a specific guideline, I’d suggest a minimum of two days of walking outside for twenty or more minutes (this is based both on experience and on a literature indicating cognitive benefits of cardio arising only after twenty minutes have been performed), with a maximum of lengthy daily walks (I’ve seen some people go as high as 1-2 hours per day, every day, but I think protocols of this type will end up impractical for almost anyone). A middle-of-the-road approach which would mesh with my previous lifting recommendations would be to perform low or moderate intensity cardio on non-lifting days, 2-5 days a week. This has the benefit of yielding daily exercise, and thus, hopefully, daily stress reduction. Then again, you might find it less stressful to have at least one complete off day each week, in which case you’ll want to arrange the entirety of your program to reflect that. As usual, there is no singular right answer, and I hope only to offer reasonable general guidelines.
I think the addition of meditation will also likely be beneficial for most. Although I’m markedly less familiar with the literature in this area, my understanding is that meditation has been shown to improve both impulse control and empathy (note that the word “empathy” is rarely used in the literature, but it’s de facto what researchers are referring to when they use more technical terms). Admittedly, this is not directly related to stress reduction, but it speaks to an improved ability to consciously control your thoughts and behavior. In addition, the anecdotal evidence in favor of regular meditation improving perceived stress is overwhelming. Personally, I’d go the routes of the guided meditation apps Calm or Headspace, with the latter being my preference.
Finally, I want to offer my my usual plug for KSM-66 ashwagandha extract. Ashwagandha is an adaptogen – that is to say, a compound which positively modulates the body’s response to stress – which has been shown to reduce both plasma cortisol and subjective measures of depression, anxiety, and general stress, with KSM-66 simply being the standardized extract used in the relevant research. As a trainee and coach, I’ve been overwhelmingly impressed with the effectiveness of KSM-66, with it yielding noticeable improvements in anxiety and stress in all but the most ‘chill’ persons. To give a sense of its effects, imagine the natural ‘fight or flight’ response which arises in stressful situations, and imagine that response blunted by more than half – this is what I’ve experienced from KSM-66 supplementation, assuming I’m highly stressed. In terms of appropriate usage, the study dose is 600mg KSM-66 per day, with timing not specified. Anecdotally, morning supplementation results in a greater reduction in stress during the day, with evening supplementation having a greater beneficial effect on sleep. Alternatively, the 600mg can be split between 300mg morning and evening doses.
That wraps up my primary suggestions for reducing stress – again, simple, but effective both acutely and especially if practiced on a consistent (daily) basis.