Struggling to exercise during the pandemic? It's not just your imagination

  • While exercise normally reduces stress levels, high-intensity workouts can stress you out even more 
  • It may be counterproductive if you start your workout already stressed out
  • It's important to listen to your body when struggling with stamina during a workout

Four months into lockdown, and your usual Zoom workout session is feeling a little tougher than usual. 

It's not just in your head though, there might be a scientific reason why your body's endurance is not what it should be.

Pandemic stress

During the Covid-19 pandemic, where an innocent trip to the grocery store could land you or a loved one in hospital, people's anxiety levels are at peak levels. Many of us have turned to exercise to relieve the stress – but might we just be too mentally stressed out in the first place to exercise properly?

An analysis in Sport Medicine found that mental fatigue can be detrimental to physical endurance. The more anxious the brain, the quicker you'll feel exhausted from exercise. 

A study of gains achieved during weight-training showed that high stress also made it difficult to increase bench press and squat intensity, while another study concluded that a lack of social interaction can have a negative effect on the brain when running.

Athletes lose their ability to endure pain during sports when their stress levels are too high, making them less resilient.

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Why is this?

One reason is the fact that exercise is itself a stressor, placing strain on our body and triggering a stress response, especially when doing high-intensity workouts. While regular exercise tends to reduce stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, research shows that the more intense the workout, the more cortisol is released. 

And when you start your exercise session full of stress hormones, fatigue will set in much more quickly.

Another factor might be that you're exercising too much. Studies have found that regular exercisers tend to work out more in the face of increased stress (like during the pandemic), so you might not be giving your body enough time to recover, decreasing your overall endurance.

What can you do?

Experts told Well+Good that the key to preventing this kind of burnout is to assess how you're feeling in the first ten minutes of your workout.

If it feels like you have to give it your all to get through it, you should perhaps stop and take a break to give your body and mind a chance to heal. You can also rather opt for a low-intensity workout like a walk or a relaxed yoga session.

Another good idea is to precede your intense workout with a warm-up or short bout of yoga, which will help your mind calm down, lower your cortisol levels and help you get through the workout without cursing the god of fitness. 

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