Stressed and tired?
How Exercise Can Help You Cope With The Stresses Of Mamahood (and how to avoid it making you MORE stressed!)
Stress is kind of an accepted part of motherhood, right?!
Constantly broken sleep, nutritional depletion, our addiction to technology and complicated family dynamics are some of the biggest factors at play in early motherhood. And the effect that constant stress has on the body can be long-lasting and potentially quite serious, because the body is not really built to deal with constantly elevated stress levels.
Now this is MAJOR for mums to understand when they are thinking about getting back into exercise, because exercise can end up having a NEGATIVE effect on our nervous system if approached without much thought. Obviously as a pre and postnatal personal trainer, I’m one of the first to shout about the benefits of exercise for new mums.
It can boost your mood, improve your circulation and energy levels, and of course can help shift any EXCESS baby weight. It can also help you cope better with the stresses of motherhood. But to understand how it benefits us, and thus how it can do more harm than good if not approached carefully, we must first get our heads around the fact that any type of exercise is perceived by the body as a form of stress and stimulates the release of cortisol, one of the body’s stress hormones.
Cortisol plays an important role in how we respond to stress. It is part of the fight-or-flight reflex, and works to shut down less critical functions like digestion, reproduction and immunity to focus on fighting the immediate physical threat (which in caveman times would have been something like an angry sabre-toothed tiger…) and breaks down tissue to provide the energy necessary to fight the threat, or flee from it. But the role of cortisol was originally designed to be immediate and short lived, enough to see off any physical challenge.
However, what we perceive as ‘stress’ nowadays is less physical (and sabre-tooth tiger shaped), and instead is more psychological and constant – especially for new mums. This is where exercise can benefit us though. The more your fitness improves, the better the body becomes at dealing with physical stress, so over time LESS cortisol is released during exercise, because the body will have got used to dealing with this sort of stress, which has the knock on effect of making us better able to deal with emotional or psychological stresses too.
But too much exercise can negate these benefits, and instead keep us in a state of constantly elevated stress levels, which can lead to:
- Fatigue (even if you do manage a solid 8 hours and eat well…)
- Poor sleep (tossing and turning all night)
- Memory and concentration impairment
- Low libido
- Gut issues (diorhhea, constipation, bloating, cramps, heartburn)
- Low immune system – Increased abdominal fat and decreased muscle mass
- Osteoporosis (it has a negative effect on calcium levels in the body)
- A predisposition to diabetes (because it keeps blood glucose levels higher)
A long list of things that are exactly NOT what you need on top of juggling motherhood!
So what is too much?
TOO INTENSE Standard ‘HIIT’ workouts are attractive to mums who are short on time. And it’s true that while these are usually shorter in length than a standard, lower intensity gym workout, there is naturally less of an overall increase in cortisol levels.
However, because rest periods are short and work levels are high, the SPIKE in cortisol levels is greater than a low intensity workout.
Now I am a big fan of HIIT, as it has its own benefits outside the discussion around cortisol levels (i.e it’s great for maintaining a healthy metabolic rate) BUT if we are dealing with high stress levels (i.e. regular sleep deprivation) we need to be particularly cautious about HIITing it when:
- Fasted (i.e. before you’ve had breakfast)
- nutritionally depleted
- done early morning (when cortisol levels are naturally higher)
…because the stress response to exercise is greater.
NOTE: I use the term ‘MummyHIIT’ for a lot of my at home workouts for clients because whilst I use a timed format, I encourage longer rest periods than I might for a general HIIT programme, and we don’t go ‘balls to the wall’. Instead it’s about maintaining proper form throughout, and not working to exhaustion. So it’s not HIIT as you might know it…
TOO LONG Any sort of low intensity ‘training’ (swimming, cycling, jogging, even walking…) that lasts for more than 60 minutes will still result in you burning up the body’s glycogen stores and stimulating cortisol release.
OK so how should I be exercising as a new mum to actually get the benefits?!
To summarise, it is possible to enjoy the undeniable benefits of exercise (i.e. improve the body’s ability to respond to stresses in your life) whilst minimising the damaging impact on cortisol levels:
- Don’t overdo it. Take regular breaks from intense training and listen to your body.
- Leave intense sessions to later in the day, when cortisol levels are lower.
- Eat right to fuel your body and make sure you consume carbohydrates and protein after exercise to decrease the cortisol response.
- Consider adding adaptogens – like Tulsi Tea or Ashwaganda to your diet to improve your body’s response to stress.
- Take the time to balance your workouts with stress-busting activities such as a good long bath, yoga or meditation, or short walks in the fresh air!