Let’s face it: Modern life is stressful. On any given day, you’ve got to balance your work and personal life while staying on top of your diet, fitness, and general health. Add a global pandemic, economic instability, and a whole lot of political division to the mix, and you’ve got a perfect recipe for burnout.
For many of us, amping up our exercise routine can be a good way to help curb stress. However, if your go-to workout is high-intensity interval training (HIIT), you may just be piling even more stress onto your already-taxed body.
Here’s why you may want to press ‘pause’ on the HIIT sessions when stress is extra-high.
Stress And Your Body
Your body’s stress response is controlled by your autonomic nervous system. When you tackle a tough workout or get trapped in a tense meeting with your boss, your nervous system moves into a sympathetic-dominant state (also known as the ‘fight-or-flight response’), jacking up your blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing rate to help you handle the stress, according to Harvard Medical School.
Then, once you’re ready to calm down, your nervous system shifts into a parasympathetic-dominant state, bringing your breath, heart rate, and blood pressure back to resting levels. This is where we’re meant to spend the bulk of our time.
Sadly, for many of us, constant stress of all types keeps our sympathetic nervous system running on overdrive. “If our stress response doesn’t stop firing, or too much is asked of it too often, our stress levels can stay elevated for longer than our bodies were designed to handle, which can have a negative impact on our wellbeing and health,” says personal trainer Simon King, owner of Cre8 Fitness in London.
For example, having an overactive sympathetic nervous system can increase your risk of heart disease, according to research published in Physiological Reviews. And research published in Current Neuropharmacology suggests that keeping your stress response on overdrive can also increase your risk of depression.
HIIT And Stress
You can’t deny that HIIT is a fun and time-efficient way to fit a workout into your crazy-packed schedule.
Whether you opt for treadmill intervals or a circuit of bodyweight moves, there are countless ways to do HIIT—and certain protocols, like Tabata, deliver benefits in less than five minutes of work. Plus, a landmark study found that five days of HIIT per week improved aerobic and anaerobic fitness better than five days of moderate-intensity cardio.
Read More: 7 HIIT Workouts That Incinerate Fat
But why are HIIT workouts so darn effective? Because they send your stress soaring, sky-rocketing your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate. “The truth is, these brutal sweat-inducing sessions aren’t for everyone, as HIIT can induce a ‘fight-or-flight response,’” King says.
If your days are fairly low-stress, kicking yourself into fight-or-flight during your workout may not be an issue. However, if you’re already juggling stressful home and/or work situations, a super-intense workout may just send your stress and anxiety levels even further through the roof, explains King. That’s not good for your fitness—or your health.
Are Your Workouts Too Much?
To keep your workouts from doing more harm than good, consider whether you’re HIIT-ing it too hard. Use these tips from King to guide you.
1. Self-assess before your workout
If you’ve been under a lot of stress lately (*raises hand*), get in the habit of running through a self-screening checklist before jumping into a HIIT workout. King recommends checking in on the following:
- Stomach pain, nausea, or digestive issues
- Weakness or fatigue
- Rapid breathing or shortness of breath
- Increased heart rate
- Trembling or shaking
- Tension or muscle pain
- Chest pressure
If you’re feeling three or more of these symptoms, scale down your workout intensity: “Go at about 50 percent of your normal capacity, and if you feel worse, it could be time to change what you’re doing and head for a stretch or some breathing exercises,” King says.
2. Tune into how you feel during and after the workout
“Exercise is a natural go-to to combat depression and anxiety, and if it works for you, keep going,” King says. If your HIIT workout only makes you feel more anxious, though, dial back the intensity or find a new activity.
This doesn’t mean that HIIT is off the table forever: “It might only be a short-term sacrifice until you develop or find other tools to manage stress and anxiety,” King says.
3. Ask yourself: Are all my workouts intense?
HIIT is great, but it’s recommended to balance intense exercise with low-impact, low-intensity options like Pilates, barre, and walking. “Walking for an hour is great for mindfulness, gives you a change of scenery, boosts your immune system, and can burn 200 to 300 calories—about as much as a 20-minute HIIT session,” King says.
If you need to take a break from HIIT, don’t stress about it (you have enough stress already). Instead, switch to lower-intensity cardio like rowing, cycling, or walking, and combine it with bodyweight movements like squats, lunges, pushups, and planks. You’ll score the mood-boosting benefits of exercise while building a solid foundation of fitness and strength, King says.
He recommends rinsing and repeating for one to two months. From there, if you’re feeling ready to restart HIIT, gradually introduce one or two sessions per week.
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