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Exercise Column

Your waking heart rate indicates the stress in your life - good and bad

Taking your pulse first thing in the morning is a good indicator of your life's stress. If your typical resting heart rate (RHR) is elevated, it lets you know your body is dealing with an increased amount of stress. It also indicates your fitness level, your prior day's training load, if you are adapting to your training, among other physiological conditions occurring in your body.

A person's resting heart rate (RHR) responds to any type of stress, whether it be positive stress (eustress) or negative stress (distress). Not only does your heart race when you get excited or worried - both psychological stresses, but it also goes up if you have a cold, a fever, when your climb the stairs, or run along a track - physiological forms of stress.

With any type of training stress, in the short-term, your RHR first thing in the morning goes up too. If you train hard on a Saturday, your pulse will be elevated on Sunday as your body repairs and adapts from the workout. In time, however, as you gain fitness, while your pulse goes up during the workout it will actually go down the next morning.

Hence, an athlete will typically have a lower resting heart rate than a sedentary person. Some athletes RHR values are as low as 30 to 40 beats per minute (bpm) compared to the average sedentary RHR in the range of 70 to 80 bpm.

So as you adapt to your workouts, your RHR will slowly lower down. But, initially they might go up. And later any increase in the level will let you know that your body is being stressed, either from additional training or from some other form of stress. It needs time, proper nutrition, and rest to adapt (and cope with) that stress.

Yes, exercise is a stress too. A point I always like to make in my lectures, books, magazine articles, and consultation meetings, is that exercise is a stress. In addition you do not gain fitness (get stronger, firmer, faster, increased endurance, etc.) while you are working out. Rather you gain fitness after your body repairs and adapts to the workout stress. And you only adapt if you provide yourself with the proper nutrients, adequate rest, and enough time before you add additional stresses to your body.

Remember also that all types of stress add up. If you have too many stressors in your life your body rebels in one way or another. You might get injured, sick, depressed, over-tired, ...

So take good care of your body and mind. Your body can adapt to stress and better handle future stress with appropriate amounts of exercises, not excessive or too little, and proper nutrition. Don't try to take on too much stress or your body won't continue to adapt, and you might plateau or, in some cases, revert back to an earlier state.

Written by Dr. Sternlicht for on 1.28.06