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Exercise recovery peaked during the summer, when quitting was at its most popular. Here’s why. 

If your DOMS is going on for days, you feel shattered after a mild training session or you feel unable to push yourself in your workouts, the problem might not be your fitness. The issue could be your job.

Yep, the stress you feel at work has a huge impact on your exercise – more specifically, on your recovery. What with the (temporary) easing of Covid and its associated anxieties, it’s no coincidence that June 2021 – the month now associated with ‘the Great Resignation’ – saw the biggest improvements in post-training recovery. 

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Quitting was at its highest over the summer months after we came out of lockdown feeling burnt out. Stats show that people in America resigned in numbers not seen since the 90s, and in the UK, job vacancies soared to an all-time high. Simultaneously, fitness tracker brand Whoop saw the largest improvements of the whole year in markers of recovery – such as heart rate variability, resting heart rate, respiratory rate and length and depth of sleep – from May to June.

Can work stress impact your exercise?

Are these two things really linked? Can your work stress really impact how well your body recovers from your workouts? Yes, says Emily Capodilupo, vice president of data science and research at Whoop. That’s because your body doesn’t know the difference between physical or mental stress – heavy loads in your job or personal life are just as strenuous as heavy loads at the gym. 

Your body doesn’t know the difference between exercise stress and work stress, so it can all add up.

“Work stress, or other emotional stress, can put our bodies in a catabolic – or burning – state,” says Capodilupo. “That causes us to burn through muscle. When we exercise, we need our bodies to be in an anabolic – or building – state. If we work out while we’re in a catabolic state, you will not gain muscle fitness and will have trouble repairing your body from the workout so may feel the fatiguing effects for longer.”

Does quitting your job impact your health? 

It wasn’t just about reducing the mental load. Quitting simply gave women more time to prioritise their health. “Flexible hours, for example, gives people room to sleep later when they need it or to shift their sleep schedule to something better aligned with their natural inclinations (we see a huge shift towards later bedtimes and later wake times, for example) – all of this promotes recovery and wellbeing,” says Capodilupo. 

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The ability to choose when to exercise rather than rush through gym sessions had a huge impact on many women who spoke to Stylist. Lillie Bleasdale, who quit her job in commercial operations to become a running coach, says: “With more flexible time I’m not running around everywhere post-session and can actually get good sleep and slow down. Just having more time to recover has made my recovery better.”

Sophie Collier quit her job in PR over the summerto go freelance. She says that she’s noticed a huge improvement in her mental and physical health. “I’ve made more time to focus on myself, spent more time in the gym without feeling like I was having to fit it in before work, and when I’m at home I have time to stretch out, which has made me feel better,” she says. It also changed her relationship with exercise for the better: “I’m now in a different headspace as I’ve started to enjoy my workouts again. I think it’s made me realise that my health and wellbeing should always come first and I appreciate exercise so much more now,” she adds. 

Signs you’re too stressed at work – and what to do about it

If you’re not precious about your workout performance, you might not think that optimising recovery matters. So what if you feel a little tired during your HIIT circuit? But continuing stressful exercise routines on top of stressful jobs is a recipe for burnout. So how do you know if you’re emotionally and physically spent?

“Work stress is sneaky,” says Capodilupo. “When we do a tough workout and put physical stress on our body we might feel sore and tired but we know exactly why and typically recover quickly. Work stress builds up slowly and isn’t localised to a specific part of the body. Rather, we see systemic effects of inflammation and fatigue like increased snacking on unhealthy foods and weight gain, hair loss, disturbed sleep and insomnia, reduced libido, and depressed mood.”

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Feeling stressed? Here’s how that might affect your exercise plans

You shouldn’t ever be prioritising career over health, but not all of us can just quit our jobs in order to have a better work/exercise balance. So what’s the solution? Managing physical stress may be more in your control than blowing off a three-hour Zoom meeting, so opting for lower impact workouts when you’re feeling particularly burnt out with your job or personal life can help. Walking, yoga or pilates all still count as exercise without over-spiking your stress levels.

Tracking stress symptoms that might otherwise go unnoticed can also be useful and there are a number of smartwatches and apps out there that can help – like Whoop, Apple or FitBit. But a lot of it will come down to being honest with yourself about how much you’re taking on and why you are pushing your brain and body to such extremes.

Images: Getty

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