Embracing Extremes

Sauna cranked up. Getting ready to sweat.

Stress is part of life. We need stress. In the right dose, we strengthen our body and mind from exposure to stress. But what kind of stress are we actually talking about? And in what dose?

When we speak of stress, we can classify it in one of two categories; acute stress and chronic stress. Acute stress, for example, might result from your thirty minute deadlift session last Tuesday. For half an hour, you called upon your body to lift very heavy weights, relatively speaking. The demand was significant, but short lived. For the next six days, you allowed your body to recover from this event. Hopefully, if the dosage of stress was adequately high, but not so high that damage was inflicted, your body will recover and adapt, providing some small incremental improvement in performance, making the same lift easier next time.

Chronic stress, on the other hand, is characterized by longer, milder bouts. Say for instance five days out of the week you sit for nine hours at a desk. If you’re like most humans, this volume of sitting, often in comprised positions, can wreak havoc on your body. In this case, however, the damage may come slowly over time, and be difficult to reverse.

Therefore, stress can harmful or beneficial. It depends on the activity or event, and the dosage. Unfortunately, it seems that we humans are increasingly engaging in activities that entail chronic stress, and more and more limiting exposure to more beneficial, acute stress.

Limiting chronic stress can be difficult. For example, a bad boss can ensure your cortisol levels stay constantly elevated, with limited opportunities for recovery and general health. Perhaps Friday evening brings some relief, with a relatively relaxing Saturday. As Sunday evening approaches, thoughts of work start flooding your mind, where they will continue to occupy this space for next five days. This particular form of stress, and its resultant higher than normal cortisol levels, will be present for most of the week.

Where once upon a time humans would only encounter brief bouts of severe stress (i.e. predator approaching), we now encounter longer lasting – albeit seemingly less intense – chronic stress. Exactly what impact this is having on our health is difficult to ascertain, but at the very least we can confidently say this way of living is not healthy.

So what should we do?

Embrace the acute stress, limit the chronic stress. Simple in theory, but difficult in practice. We can’t all easily just quit our stressful jobs, but there may be other activities we can more easily limit, or remove from out life altogether.

For example, are you a runner addicted to clocking serious mileage every week? While exercise is beneficial, what dosages are we talking about? Is it really healthy to run 10 miles every single day? Is your body recovering from this effort? Of course the answer will be different for every person, but it’s important to note the dosage is what’s significant. We can’t just say “running is healthy” (or similarly, “lifting weights is healthy“). We have to quantify how much is healthy, how often, and at what intensity.

In order to maintain or improve our fitness, we must engage with acutely stressful activities on a regular basis, lest our body lose its ability to engage in these activities in the future. We want to experience extremes, safely. For example…

Strength Training: This involves temporarily stressing our muscles. This stress sends a ‘signal’ to our body to build more muscle, something most of us would agree is beneficial to our health and mobility. Without this signal, our body wouldn’t have a trigger to grow muscle. Why would it? If you never lift anything over 50 lbs, why would your body prioritize improving strength? It would be an inefficient use of resources in the world our ancestors inhabited.

Heat Exposure: For example, using a sauna for 15-20 minutes, three times a week. After time you’ll notice your body’s tolerance for the same level of heat will increase. You withstand the uncomfortable environment temporarily, then allow your body the requisite to time to recover. The next time you sauna, your body will be more adapt at withstanding the increased temperature.

Cold Exposure: If you believe the Wim Hof adherents, regular exposure to cold can improve your immune system function and help stave off sickness. While I don’t have any scientific literature to support this claim, anecdotally I’ve found this to be true myself.

For the last two years, I’ve religiously taken cold showers everyday, almost without exception. I aim for just sixty seconds, but that minute can feel like an eternity. My bouts with the common cold have been near zero during this period (an extreme rarity in my life). Whether it’s a result of the cold exposure or not, I can’t say with certainty. For the time being I’m a believer and will continue the self-inflicted daily torture.

Fasting: Fasting promotes a process called autophagy, whereby damaged cells are removed by the body to make way for healthier cells. In a world where many of us live with an overabundance of calories, the concept of not eating for a day can seem foreign. Likely however, our ancestors engaged in this activity on a regular basis (just probably not by choice). In the modern world, however, we need to actively forgo calories if we want to replicate this natural state. This disciplined effort alone likely has some mental benefits, too, aside from the physiological benefits of fasting.

And we can also look at fasting from another perspective. Limiting the constant intake of calories (three meals a day dontcha know!), removes what for many individuals can be a source of chronic stress. Food intolerance can be subtle. There may exist foods that you consume regularly that trigger some degree of inflammation (stress) on your gut. The simple act of fasting may reduce this nagging inflammation, allowing your body time to rest and recover.

And so I attempt to embrace the ‘good’ stress, while limiting the ‘bad’ stress. I expose myself to extremes temporarily, with sufficient time for subsequent recovery, and attempt to avoid the pervasive chronic stress that plagues modern life. And on that note, I’ve probably been staring at this computer screen too long. Time for a break.

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