These circumstances surrounding COVID-19 are uncertain, ominous, and well… scary.
Business have closed, the economy is in shambles, and your life is more than likely completely flipped upside down. These are trying times as the unknowns about this situation are running amuck. The stress from all this is no doubt piling up, perhaps more for some than others.
But here’s the thing about stress. Your body doesn’t know the difference between mental stress from physical stress. It all handles it the same. Let us elaborate.
Your autonomic nervous system
Your autonomic nervous system is divided into two branches: the sympathetic and parasympathetic.
The sympathetic nervous system takes over during ‘flight or fight’ situations, aka perceived threats and high stress situations. Physiological responses to this flight or fight response include increased blood pressure, increased muscle tone, increased resting heart rate, decreased digestion, and essentially all sorts of things that would help you fight for you life or run away like your life depended on it.
On the other hand, the parasympathetic nervous system is also known as the ‘rest and digest’ part of your nervous system. When this takes over, blood pressure and muscle tone decrease, your heart rate slows down, and digestion improves. This response happens when you’re calm, relaxed, and chill.
So take an educated guess which part of your nervous system is likely fired up in response to the life altering events taking place because of COVID-19?
Sympathetic aaaaall day, baby. Think about all the potential stressors going on in your life right now.
Is your work affected? Stress.
Are you working at all? Stress.
Did your employee make reductions in pay? Stress.
Are you making any money? Stress.
Are your kids at home bugging you because they’re bored? Stress.
Do you have access to a gym? Stress.
Are you going stir crazy? Stress.
And, oh, are you worried about the virus itself?? STRESS.
So without even thinking about exercise, you may already be experiencing some of these ‘fight or flight’ adaptations (excessive muscle tone, high blood pressure, trouble sleeping, etc).
However during this time of isolation, too many people will blindly follow what Instagram influencers are preaching to do with limited equipment: high intensity bodyweight this and that. You don’t have any equipment so you”ll just have to murder yourself to make up for it! Take no rest between sets! Perform a plyometric circuit that’ll leave you weak in the legs because WHAT ELSE ARE YOU GONNA DO?? HUH?
And do you know what these high intensity exercise routines bring with them?
But instead of mental stress, this time it’s coming in the form of physical work. But your body doesn’t care and it doesn’t know the difference. It’s gonna respond the same way.
This is precisely what a bunch of you do not need during these uncertain times. If you’re crying yourself to sleep at night because you’re beyond stressed about life before exercising, the last thing you need is to beat yourself up even more.
No, no… if you’re currently stressed out of your mind, your sympathetic nervous system is already putting in overtime. You need to give your body a break. You need recovery. What you need is to create a shift to become more parasympathetic dominant.
Sympathetic dominance is associated with high intensity exercise: resistance training, sprints, tempo runs… etc. We’re gonna cut back on these for now, but not eliminate.
Parasympathetic dominance is associated with more low intensity methods of exercise: walking, low intensity cardio, yoga, mobility work, breathing drills, and low intensity strength training circuits.
Try swapping some of these lower intensity methods of exercise in for your normal higher intensity work. Your week might look something like this:
Sunday: mobility/play with kids/dog
Monday: Low intensity bodyweight strength training circuit, RPE 6-7 (rating of perceived exertion, aka how hard would you say you’re working on a scale of 1-10)
Tuesday: Low intensity cardio, yoga
Wednesday: Medium to high intensity bodyweight/KB/DB strength training
Thursday: Mobility circuit and breath work, medium intensity tempo runs
Friday: Strength training (intensity dependent on how you feel that day) or high intensity intervals
Saturday: low intensity cardio or medium intensity tempo runs, yoga
SLEEP 8 HOURS PER NIGHT EVERY NIGHT.
Now this isn’t set in stone, but it does lay out a nice guideline of how to undulate the intensity throughout the week so you don’t pile MORE stress on top of your ALREADY stressed out body.
So does this mean abandon your higher intensity exercise altogether for the sake of becoming more relaxed? No. But just perform a little self assessment before you start exercising at home. How do you feel on a scale of 1-10?
If it’s 0-3, you should probably just do some foam rolling, light mobility work, breath work, or go for a walk.
If it’s 4-6, consider lightening things up in terms of intensity, duration, or both.
7-10, have at it!
The takeaway point: sometimes less is more when you’re stressed. Exercise appropriately!