There’s good and bad to working out when life’s really stressful. On one hand, it can really help get rid of excess negative energy that can become destructive if left unmanaged. On the other hand, our central nervous system (CNS) can only deal with so much. In times of stress, it can be close to maxed out, and while working out is good for you, it does add to the overall load that your CNS can handle. The term “overtraining” is typically used to describe an athlete who is literally training too much – be it several hours a day in the gym, or hours a day on the pavement without adequate rest and recovery. But when you’re over-stressed from life, a few hours of intense exercise each week can put you over the edge and lead to overtraining. For this reason, I will often shorten workouts when clients come in during an exceptionally stressful period, making sure to add in extra rest periods.

If there is angst amid that stress, I’ll also typically suggest a set or two of medicine ball slams:

The past week has been a particularly stressful for me, which I addressed with my business coach during our session yesterday. She mentioned increasing exercise as an option, noting that adding some extra hiking time works well for her. I mentioned that I had actually dropped my exercise level a bit because I know I’m pretty close to being tapped out. I then forgot all about that conversation until today when I realized after work work that I felt like going for a run. I have been a runner at various times in my past, but am not one at the moment. I love to run when there’s something to run after – usually a frisbee. But running for no apparent reason doesn’t thrill me these days. Today for some reason, I had a sudden desire to do so. And so I did.

I went to the Arboretum after work for a quick loop (3-4 km range). It was amazing. I ran through fields of wild flowers; through a forest; down a steep gravel path; across a big park lawn; onto a tiny weeping willow-filled island; then out along the canal. I ran fast and slow; I walked; I stopped; I checked out the big tree that had been cut down but decided against counting rings; I took sudden turns to the left; and to the right; I went off the trail because, well I wanted to. I enjoyed the smell of jack pines (which smell like cotton candy at this time of year). I even hopped over a little fence instead of going around it. When I got to the top of the grassy hill, I thought back to when I was a kid and used to roll down that hill. Then I rolled down the hill. Seriously. It was awesome! I sat in the grass at the bottom until the world stopped spinning, and then I got up and ran some more, now sporting a big smile.

In times of stress, exercise can be an important tool to help address excess negative energy, but moderation is advisable because all stresses contribute to CNS fatigue. But I am convinced that making time for exercise in nature during times of stress is the most important. It trains the body and the soul; and I think it’s attention to the latter that lets us properly deal with life stresses.

How do you deal with periods of stress?

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is the owner and head trainer at Custom Strength in Ottawa.


  1. Great article. I am quite stressed out right now and I am lucky to live just next to a forest. So a few days my wife and I went for a 40 minutes run and I really felt better later on.

    Thank you very much for the CNS issue. I was thinking of doing some weight training too, and my body is telling me already I don’t want to be lifting heavy weights, so I will do some bodyweight training.

    Regards from Spain!

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