Google ‘the effects of stress on exercise’. There is a multitude of articles, papers and blogs that come up. Chronic mental and emotional stress detrimentally impacts your ability to reap the rewards of your hard earned, sweaty endeavours. 

Chronic stress

Chronic stress is constant and long-term. A brief episode of acute stress will trigger our sympathetic nervous system to respond to imminent danger and then dissipate. Chronic stress that comes from work issues, relationship stress, poor nutrition, lack of sleep, low immunity, and a negative mindset is debilitating to the physical body.

The effects of stress on health and fitness:

  • Constant muscle tension, decreasing performance and increasing the chance of injury
  • Prevention of protein synthesis (muscle and bone growth)
  • Reduction in motor coordination
  • Slowing of recovery, leading to increased aches, pains, soreness
  • Reduced motivation to exercise
  • Elevated levels of cortisol, resulting in slow weight loss 
  • Increased risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Reduced sexual desire, function and performance

Is there more to it?

This list is daunting and negative…however I want to pause to discuss our beliefs about stress.

The work of Dr Lissa Rankin in Mind over Medicine and Dr Bruce Lipton in The Biology of Belief discuss our beliefs around from stress, health, recovery, and our day to day life. These have a measurable impact on our physical bodies. Rankin and Lipton talk about the placebo effect and how our beliefs around any physical goal alter the biology in our bodies.

What we believe will happen, happens.

Lissa Rankin warns, however, that stress switches off our ability to repair, grow, change and recover.

 Or does it?

There’s a wonderful Ted talk by Kelly McGonical called ‘How to make stress your friend’. McGonical outlines how it is our attitude towards stress that impacts our health and life, rather than the stress itself. It sounds like semantics, but what researchers found was that people who believed stress was bad for them were 40% more likely to die in the following 8 years than those that didn’t. Participants of the study were in the same category of stress.

It made ‘attitude towards stress’ one of America’s largest killers!

A way forward

When we take a closer look, it goes deeper than changing one thing to affect another. 

This is what I have discovered:

  • Stress has a negative effect on physical outcomes
  • Our beliefs around stress can mitigate or increase these effects
  • Whether exercise is doing harm or good depends on more than choosing the right form of training

To suggest a way forward, I broke down a plan for action into two categories: the physical and the mental/emotional. The two factors are interconnected, so both parts are important to protect your health and fitness.


  • Ensure you have enough sleep
  • Recover well through mobility work, massage, vibration
  • Choose exercise options that work in tune with your body: a personal health coach can help you assess this based on genotype
  • Nourish your body with good food and hydration 
  • Choose exercise environments that you love to create different physical, mental, and emotional responses
  • Train at intensities according to your readiness score (see below)

Mental and Emotional

  • Gauge your readiness score to exercise using tools like Daily Readiness Observation (DRO) to help understand your physical, mental, and emotional readiness to train and determine the intensity
  • Find out your movement style and adapt your sessions accordingly – use the MoStyle questionnaire 
  • Choose the exercise that you enjoy to create exercise for positive hormonal responses
  • Schedule time with friends and loved ones: Dr Lissa Rankin says this is a great “balancer” to the stress response
  • Spend time in nature or with pets 
  • Learn to view stress as a challenge rather than as a threat
  • Learn relaxation techniques or meditation

Stress and our surrounding beliefs affected by factors other than exercise. Exercise itself is a factor for reducing stress, but only if it is not a further cause of stress. If you are looking for the ultimate way to boost results from exercise, give equal time and value to what happens inside the head and heart, and in the muscles, bones, connective tissues and chemical reactions of the body.

It is life’s balancing act!


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