What Role Does Stress Play in Exercise Recovery?

What Role Does Stress Play in Exercise Recovery?

Exercise is a stress but it’s a “good” type of stress, one that leads to beneficial adaptations. These adaptations make you stronger and change your body composition for the better. Other types of stress, like mental or psychological stress, are less beneficial and may even be harmful. Now a new study shows psychological stress makes it more difficult to recover from an intense bout of weight training.

Stress and Its Impact on Exercise Recovery

It’s almost impossible to completely avoid stress. Life comes with a certain number of challenges and uncertainty. Exercise is an ally when it comes to dealing with stress. One way it exerts its anti-stress effects is by boosting levels of a neurotransmitter called norepinephrine. Norepinephrine helps your brain better deal with mental stress. Who couldn’t use stress management and a little help from norepinephrine? Exercise has you covered. Not surprisingly, research shows people who work out regularly are less likely to suffer from anxiety and depression. In fact, research shows exercise is as effective as anti-depressant drug therapy for easing symptoms of mild depression.

Despite exercise’s anti-stress benefits, a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed adequate recovery time between workouts is even more important when you’re “stressed out.” Researchers at the University of Texas used a scale called the Holmes and Rahe stress scale to measure stress levels in a group of athletes. They wanted to look at the impact mental stress has on recovery after an intense weight-training workout.

Does Psychological Stress Hamper Exercise Recovery?

The Holmes and Rahe stress scale assigns a value or “weight” to stressful life events. Psychologists use it to evaluate stress levels in clients undergoing therapy. For example, the death of a spouse has the highest score while the Christmas holiday ranks low on the stress scale. To get a “stress value,” you identify the number of events that happened to you over the last two years and add up your score. This score tells you how likely you are to experience a stress-related illness in the future as a result of psychological stress.

Athletes screened using the Holmes and Rahe stress scale were asked to do six sets of ten leg presses at 80 to 100% of their ten-rep max. Four days later, they returned for evaluation and to see how well they had recovered from their intense lower body training session.

The results? The athletes who ranked high on the stress scale experienced greater fatigue, greater strength reductions and more muscle soreness compared to those who ranked low in the post-recovery period. Compared to athletes who weren’t stressed, their exercise recovery was slower.

What Does This Mean?

Listen to your body. When you’re under greater stress, you’ll likely benefit from longer recovery times between exercise sessions, especially if you’re doing intense weight training or high-intensity cardio. Chronic, ongoing stress can lead to a chronically elevated cortisol level. Cortisol is one of the hormones the adrenal glands that lie just above your kidneys release in response to stress. It creates a catabolic state that makes it hard to build lean body mass. Plus, it interferes with the activity of growth hormone.

In addition, cortisol suppresses immunity. This puts you at greater risk for colds and other infections. Doing an intense workout can also temporarily raise your cortisol level. Rest, adequate sleep and good nutrition help bring down an elevated cortisol level. When you’re under mental stress, your cortisol level is already high and doing high-intensity workouts without enough recovery time won’t help the situation. It may also reduce gains in lean body mass due to the catabolic effect of cortisol.

 Minimizing the Impact of Stress on Your Workouts

If you’re feeling mentally stressed out or fatigued, reduce how often you do intense workouts and give your body more time between sessions to recover. Balance things out with a low-intensity workout like yoga. Research shows yoga workouts lead to a significant drop in cortisol. Plus, yoga may reduce stress in other ways by helping you learn to breathe better, relax and be more mindful.

When you’re under stress, sleep is even more of a priority. Without enough sleep, you’ll only exacerbate the cortisol problem. Make sure you’re eating a balanced diet with adequate calories, protein, and fiber-rich carbohydrates. Choose more vitamin C -rich fruits and vegetables. Research shows vitamin C helps reduce the release of cortisol in response to stress.

 The Bottom Line?

Exercise can help you deal with stress, but if you’re currently under lots of pressure, give yourself more recovery time and balance high-intensity workouts with low-intensity ones like yoga and stretching. If you continue to train at a high intensity without enough recovery time, it may affect your gains and lead to chronic fatigue and symptoms of overtraining. In the eagerness to make fitness gains, some people lose sight of the importance of balance. A few light days won’t side rail your progress – it may be exactly what you need to get back on track.



Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000335.

American Psychological Association. “Exercise Fuels the Brain’s Stress Buffers”

Int J Psychiatry Med. 2011;41(1):15-28.

ACE Fitness. “Training Recovery: The Most Important Component of Your Clients’ Exercise Programs”

Indian J Psychiatry. Jul 2013; 55(Suppl 3): S405-S408. doi:  10.4103/0019-5545.116315.

Cogn Behav Ther. 2006;35(1):3-10.

Psychology Today. “Vitamin C: Stress Buster”


Related Articles By Cathe:

Do You Really Need More Exercise Recovery Time as You Age?

For More Effective Workouts, Science Says You Need Exercise Variety

What is Deloading and How Does It Apply to Resistance Training?


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