Do stress and sleep impact our exercise tolerance?

Do stress and sleep impact our exercise tolerance?

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We have all had those days where our exercise session seems a whole lot harder than usual…when we push but it feels like there is just no gas left in the tank…But have you ever considered why that was the case? Had you thought about how you have been sleeping, or even how your stress levels have been?


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For many, these are factors that are very easy to overlook. I mean, how important can stress and sleep really be to how you tolerate exercise? Turns out, it is super influential!


Sleep and exercise tolerance

I’m sure you have been told time and time again how important a good night’s sleep is. Sleep deprivation is actually known as a form of torture, as it has such a large impact on our function and how you feel!

Sleep is a really important time for your body to rest and recover from your day (and perhaps your exercise session). If you are not getting enough sleep, it is highly likely that your body is not physically recovering from your exercise sessions, or even just what you are doing in your day. This means, that when your tired self decides to do some exercise, it is putting the body under more stress before it has had a proper chance to recover from the last lot of stress you have put it through. Not only is it likely that you will struggle physically, but a lack of sleep can make things a whole lot harder mentally- everything seems so much harder when you are tired!

Not only will things seem harder, but some studies have shown that sleep (or lack thereof) can impact your pain threshold. If you are not getting enough sleep, your pain tolerance reduces. This also means that if you have a niggle or an injury, or are going through an OA or RA flare, the pain will actually seem to be worse. Remember though- take it easy on yourself! This is not the time for the “no pain, no gain” philosophy that we commonly hear- make sure you are taking all the right steps to give your body the rest and recovery it needs to help it to feel and move better.

Stress and exercise performance

So how exactly does stress affect performance? There is actually quite a famous graph (The Yerkes-Dodson stress-performance curve) that looks at stress and performance.



As you can see from the graph, too much stress can result in lower performance and therefore less tolerance. Burnout results from too much stress and as a result, performance suffers.


Stress is a bit of a sneaky thing- it affects not only our mental state of mind (i.e. our confidence and focus), but it also affects our body’s functions and processes. In a stressed state, your muscles hold a lot more tension in them (think about how many people get tension headaches when stressed), which can make it a whole lot harder for them to do exercise. Stress also increases your heart rate and breathing rate, and often it makes our breathing a lot more shallow. If you try and exercise in this state, your heart rate response will be higher, and you will likely find it more difficult to get enough oxygen in through breathing. As a result, your body probably won’t be able to get to the same amount of exercise it normally does, or it may seem like you have to work a whole lot harder, and get tired a whole lot quicker than usual!


There is also some evidence to suggest that an increase in your stress hormones can cause a weaker immune system, which makes you more susceptible to injury or illness, which means you’re less likely to be able to exercise consistently!


All in all, our exercise tolerance is affected by our sleep and our stress. It is super important to make sure that you are getting enough good quality sleep, and managing your stress levels, in order to keep you going with exercise, and to allow your body to tolerate and enjoy it!


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