Take the Stress out of Exercise
Trainers can take simple actions to help clients reduce their stress levels during times of emotional and mental challenge.
Ten days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall on August 29, 2005, and pushed a 10-foot wall of water into Mandeville, a city on the north shore of Louisiana’s Lake Ponchartrain, Kristi Wright stood in front of her personal training studio, dreading what awaited her inside. About 4–6 feet of storm surge had traveled from the lake up to her home and the neighboring studio she had operated in the lakefront community since 1998.
After many moments of angst, grief and anger. Wright got busy. Over the course of the next week, while her house was being gutted, she contacted her personal training clients from the safety of a second, undamaged studio 10 miles west in Covington to begin the process of rebuilding her business.
Two weeks later, her clients resumed training at the Covington studio, eager for the opportunity to return to some semblance of their old schedules. Those sessions, says Wright, provided a welcome relief from the world of insurance adjustors, roofing contractors and tardy cable trucks.
“Having the studio come back has been one of the only stable things we’ve had,” said Wright 2 months after the hurricane. “These [clients] have gone through all kinds of changes—new homes, new schools, offices moved from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. One of my clients spent a month trying to find housing for his employees and taking care of his own family.”
Although your clients may never experience anything as harrowing as Hurricane Katrina, there are ways that you can serve as a port in the storm for them. Here’s how.
Wright, who has a master’s degree in exercise physiology, made some key adjustments in her clients’ training routines to accommodate attitudes that were dramatically different after the Katrina evacuation. Her own experiences of loss while struggling to rebuild her life and business helped her communicate with her displaced clientele.
“I’ve opened up, so people know they can relate,” Wright said. “We also made the workouts more restorative with release work and stretching—kind of the way we begin with new clients. Totally understanding that their nervous systems are stretched to the hilt, we just want to restore their energy.”
Wright and her one remaining employee, Monica Gallardo, a trainer and massage therapist, have a pretty clear understanding of the process that clients need after a significant life-changing event, and both are equipped to provide a multitude of diverse services. While not all trainers will face a disaster that affects so much of their client base at once, we all have customers whose training routines need to be adjusted during times of emotional and mental challenge.
“There has to be a balance between the therapeutic side that exercise provides through endorphins and the potential wear and tear that also occurs from exercise,” says Mandeville psychologist Doug Walker, PhD. “There are multiple stressors with uncertainty in our world. [Businesses and services] are still closed; our homes and schools are unsettled; our kids’ friends may have moved.”
Trainers need to recognize that cumulative and constant mental and emotional stressors can create a host of demands on the body and increase the chance of illness in their clients. Understanding those stressors and the impact they have on physiology can help us modify workouts during times of trouble.
Stress is defined as the nonspecific response of the body to any demand made by it and any event in which environmental demands, internal demands or both tax or exceed the adaptive resources of an individual, a social system or a tissue system (Maglione-Garves, Kravitz & Schneider 2005). Stressors, which can occur at home, at work, in traffic and in the gym, can accumulate and cause negative effects.
A New York Times series on job-related stress cited several Scandinavian studies on workplace uncertainty that suggest a significant correlation between strain in the workplace and health (Schwartz 2004). Finnish and Swedish studies have also found that dramatic changes in the workplace result in significant increases in blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease, sick leaves and hospital stays (Schwartz 2004).
What trainers should be most mindful of is that a client’s response to elevated stress causes an increase in immune system biomarkers, such as cortisol and adrenaline, which can be further exacerbated during exercise unless properly monitored (Kreider, Fry & O’Toole 1998; Segerstrom & Miller 2004). These biomarkers, which are critical to the body’s defense against illness and physical trauma, remain highly active under constant stress and can overload the system, resulting in severe health issues. One well-known example of this effect would be someone who acts as a caregiver to an Alzheimer’s patient and ultimately ends up with a compromised immune system comparable to that of a 90-year-old (Schwartz 2004).
Stress can affect even younger and healthier individuals. Perhaps you have a client who is training for an Ironman® triathlon while dealing with a job layoff and mounting bills. The effect of this kind of stress can wreak havoc with a group of immune system hormones called cytokines, which can become elevated more than tenfold after a triathlon and rise equally high in emotionally stressed subjects; in the long term, this hormone elevation can lead to conditions such as arthritis, cardiovascular disease, delayed healing and cancer (Nieman et al. 2004; Schwartz 2004). What’s more, adding high-intensity or long-duration exercises to the mix may promote a cascading inflammatory effect (Schwartz 2004).
For these reasons alone, it is important to alter training patterns for highly stressed subjects and to provide modifications, such as lower-intensity training, calmer approaches to goals and general moral support. By simply using verbal and nonverbal skills, such as active listening and gentle persuasion, trainers can become an important support system for stressed-out clients. Trainers need to avoid acting as therapists in such cases, but offering support may be as simple as replacing high-energy motivational techniques with a calmer, more restorative workout.
“I do think trainers have the ‘power’ to be therapeutic in a psychological sense,” says Walker. For example, trainers can help stressed clients set concrete goals for themselves and observe whether they are meeting those goals during times of strain. “Trainers may need to ask, ‘Are you taking care of yourself? When was your last day off? Tell me the last time you did nothing.’”
In the long run, additional stretching, myofascial release and stability work might also be very effective for stressed clients and create a sense of well-being and control.
Just being there for your clients will be one form of stress reduction. Research has found that athletes low in both social support and coping skills are significantly more vulnerable to injury (Smith, Smoll & Ptacek 1990).
Trainers in areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina know a thing or two about positive social support. Tavis Piattoly, director of personal training at Elmwood Fitness Center in hard-hit Jefferson Parish, says his member base is happy to be back [at the club] and grateful to have a refuge from the stark choices facing them.
“A lot of members are glad they have a place to [exercise] away from working on their house,” he said. “A few people who had lost everything called to thank us for helping them to get back.”
Piattoly, who has a master’s degree in nutrition and formerly served as a sports nutritionist at nearby Tulane University, also helped clients slowly return to regular healthy eating patterns.
“We just encouraged [our clients] to get back into the habit of eating good meals,” says Piattoly. One way he and his staff helped was to give clients food diaries to record what they were eating each day in the hurricane’s aftermath. “It’s an eye opener when they see they are skipping a lot of meals or eating a lot of excess calories. Our emphasis was more on energy balance, letting them [know if they were] getting into trouble burning tissue (through catabolic response to meal skipping) or consuming excess calories.”
Other helpful tools that trainers can provide are life-event journals, which clients can use to monitor and measure stressors at work or home; the trainers can then use this information to determine how hard clients should work out on any given day. Also beneficial during times of stress, sleep journals can be used to record the number of hours of sleep clients get on workout days; lack of sleep is a stressor that has been linked to immunity suppression (Kreider, Fry & O’Toole 1998). Knowing how rested clients are can help trainers determine the appropriate intensity of training sessions.
Finally, trainers who regularly work with highly stressed clients may want to do some homework on the topic of stress. One invaluable resource would be the guidelines listed in Kreider, Fry & O’Toole’s Overtraining in Sports (Human Kinetics 1998), which contains a host of specific stress-reducing recommendations for active individuals.
When measuring how successful they are with clients, personal trainers often focus on physical improvements, such as weight loss, improved health or enhanced strength. However, our true worth may lie more in our ability to help clients reduce their stress level and, ultimately, their risk for injury or disease. Sometimes, our real success comes from just providing a client with a secure and familiar place to come to during trying times.
Wright, who faces the daunting task of rebuilding both her business and her home, finds motivation in this kind of success. “The hope that we provide people when they have been put through the wringer is what keeps me going,” she claims. “They walk in the door, we apply functional movement principles, and they leave feeling better. That hope is what keeps me going.”
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Here are some actions to take today to lower stress levels in your clients during times of hardship:
- Practice the art of listening closely so you know what clients are experiencing.
- Recognize that there is a cumulative effect from different emotional and mental stressors in the workplace, home and gym.
- Modify workouts to be less stressful and demanding; instead, concentrate on restorative sessions that feature lower-intensity drills and soothing warm-ups/cool-downs. Mind-body modalities, such as tai chi or Pilates, might be just the ticket for reducing stress.
- Include more stretching and stability work to instill a sense of well-being.
- Instead of high-energy motivational techniques, try a less demanding approach, such as gentle persuasion.
- Help clients keep track of what they are eating during emergencies by providing food journals or diaries to monitor caloric intake or skipped meals.
- Ask clients to record the number of hours they slept prior to a workout so you can plan a less intense session if they are sleep-deprived.
- Provide a safe haven for clients by offering support and a place to relieve stress through appropriate physical activity.
- Read books such as Overtraining in Sports by Kreider, Fry and O’Toole (Human Kinetics 1998). This contains a host of specific stress-reducing recommendations for athletes.
Maglione-Garves, C., Kravitz, L., & S. Schneider. 2005. Cortisol connection: Tips on managing stress and weight. ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal, 9 (5), 20–23.
Nieman, D., et al. 2004. Vitamin E and immunity after the Kona Triathlon World Championship. Medicine & Science in Sport and Exercise, 36 (8), 1328–35.
Schwartz, J. 2004. Always on the job, employees pay with their health. The New York Times (Sept. 5), p. 23. (Also retrievable at nytimes.com/health; search “workplace stress.”)
Segerstrom, S., & Miller, G. 2004. Psychological stress and the human immune system: A meta-analytic study of 30 years of inquiry. Psychological Bulletin, 130 (4), 601–30.
Smith, R., Smoll, F., & Ptacek, J. 1990. Conjunctive moderator variables in vulnerability and resiliency research life stress, social support and coping skills and adolescent sports injuries. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58 (2), 360-70.
© 2006 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.
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