Stress May Impair Recovery from Exercise

If you’re wondering why your workouts are leaving you feeling extra sore and tired, look no further than your stress levels. Recent research has found that chronic stress may actually impair the body’s ability to recover from exercise.


Understanding Chronic Stress

Stress isn’t necessarily good or bad. We need some stress in our lives to stay alert and motivated. Stress only becomes a problem when we have too much of it.

The human stress response—often referred to as fight-or-flight—was designed for short-term stressors. When faced with a stressor, the body produces a surge of adrenaline followed by an elevated level of the hormone cortisol. When the stressor is removed, cortisol levels return to normal levels.

In our modern culture, the stressors are never entirely removed, and the result is a condition known as chronic stress—where cortisol levels remain elevated. We know that too much stress can lead to illness, but what other effects does it have?


The Physical Effects of Psychological Stress

Exercise is touted as an effective stress management tool—and there is no doubt that it is an important one. However, there might be a catch—stress can have such a profound physiological effect on the body that it may interfere with the body’s ability to recover and repair itself. In other words, chronic mental stress may actually lead to physical overload.

Researchers conducted a study that included subjects with high stress levels and low stress levels. They evaluated two kinds of stress: perceived stress and life-event stress. Perceived stress is a subjective measure of how a person experiences stress—how it feels, so to speak. Life-event stress, on the other hand, is more objective. It has nothing to do with how stress feels, just what it involves. Life-event stress might include things like divorce, moving, or a demanding job.

After the participants completed a strenuous strength workout, the researchers measured their subjective and objective recovery each day for four consecutive days. Measurements included muscular function (isometric muscular force) and somatic sensations such as perceived energy, fatigue, and soreness.

The results indicated that stress impaired recovery, even after adjusting for fitness, workload, and training experience. Both perceived stress and life-event stress impaired muscular force and perceived energy. In addition, life event stress was also associated with more fatigue and soreness. On the flip side, recovery was improved and faster in participants with low stress.


Balancing Stress and Exercise

This doesn’t mean you should avoid exercise when you’re stressed. On the contrary, exercise can be an important stress management tool. However, if you’re experiencing extreme stress, you may need longer recovery periods after your workouts.

When the body is in a weakened state—as is often the case with stress—even “good” physical stress like exercise can lead to physical overload.

The bottom line: don’t skip the workout, but do add extra recovery time. If you’re tired, stressed, and feeling extra sore after exercise, give yourself an extra day or two off between workouts to allow your body to fully recover.



Stults-Kolehmainen MA, Bartholomew JB, Sinha R. Chronic Psychological Stress Impairs Recovery of Muscular Function and Somatic Sensations over a 96-Hour Period. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Published early online December 13, 2013. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000335