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Hormesis - The Good Stress

Updated: Jan 8, 2021

When working with clients, we talk about reducing and managing stress A LOT! Why? Because we all endure it and stress has the potential to wreak havoc on our body's ability to regulate blood sugar, maintain a strong immune system and sustain a healthy microbiome, get restful sleep, and keep our hormones in check.

To be honest, we were not meant to manage all the stress that is thrown at us in a day. In looking at our stressors, it's best to reduce as many as we can... or at least try to control how the stress is making us feel (sitting in traffic and yelling at the person in front of you for cutting you off, when they can't hear you!) But, we can also take advantage of some of the stressors on our body and use them to our advantage to create a stronger and better you! These stressors are ones our bodies were meant to handle, like temperature fluctuations, periods without food, and physical exercise. I have touched upon this type of stress before when I wrote a blog on Intermittent Fasting, as a hormetic stress. This article is geared towards exercise and using it to make gains.

To begin with, what is hormesis?

The definition of hormesis is the process of conditioning and adaptation in which low levels of stress stimulate or upregulate cellular and molecular pathways that improve the capacity of cells and organisms to withstand greater stress.” (1) Or to say another way, growth by responding to a low or intermittent dose of a stressor that could be dangerous or deadly at a higher level.

A few weeks ago, Ken and I did a workout together, heavy deadlifts followed by box jumps. This type of exercise done at the right intensity level (which is different for Ken and I), will create a hormetic stress on the body. By lifting a heavy weight and minimizing rest, the workout is meant to damage the muscles being recruited to do the work, which will increase inflammation to those areas. In order for our bodies to repair and gain from this, we needed to follow through with several important things:

  • REST - recovery and sleep

  • FUEL - nutrition and hydration

If this is NOT done properly, this workout becomes another stress on the body.

In order to make this a Hormetic Stress, one we gain from, we need to dial in the intensity (dose) and follow it up with the proper recovery which needs to include rest and fuel...and for every person this is different. If this is NOT done properly, this stress can turn into a chronic stress which can show up as injuries related to overtraining and under-recovering. This of course can be due to all the things that fall under rest and fuel:

  • a calorie deficit

  • the wrong kind of calories to replenish the muscles

  • not hydrating properly

  • not enough sleep

  • not getting good quality sleep

  • going to hard too soon after a workout

The GOAL in exercise is to use the Hormetic Stress to make GAINS!

  • Intermittent stress at doses we can handle makes us stronger, more resilient and can get us to attain our goals.

  • Finding your exercise stress load, followed by the correct dose of nutrition and rest/recovery will get you there!

Quick Tips and Summary so Exercise helps you:

  1. Keep a journal of what you are doing. We tend to forget what weight we lifted, how many reps, etc. The journal is a good reflection so you can see if you are giving yourself enough recovery between hard workouts, and see the gains you are making.

  2. You do you! Don't worry about what someone else is lifting, the pace they are running, how long they did cardio... start where you are, and move on from there.

  3. Make sure you are eating enough calories to sustain the work you are doing. If not, your body will produce a steady source of cortisol, which will make you insulin resistant and promote the accumulation of belly fat. I also want to note and will write more about this, but wanted to include a tie bit here: chronic stress in any form can also induce a hypothyroid-like state, where metabolic rate is lowered and weight loss slows or stops altogether, and exercise-induced chronic stress is no different.

When we embrace exercise as a hormetic stress and use it to our advantage, we will become stronger and more resilient. I hope these tips help you makes gains in the months/years to come!


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