The Body’s Response to Stress – Understanding the General Adaptation Syndrome

The body has a very specific response pattern to the stressors placed upon it. Read more to learn how to manage this response to achieve fitness gains.

Does this scenario sound familiar to you?

A new exerciser reads in a magazine that cardio is the best form of exercise to lose weight. Enthusiastically, she starts out full throttle, doing three times per week on the elliptical machine for 30 minutes, and taking Zumba classes three times a week as well for an hour each. Every session she gives it her all – pushing herself to her limits. After three weeks of this continuous high intensity mode, she starts to develop aches and pains, feels exhausted all the time, craves sugar like crazy and worst of all, hasn’t lost a pound on the scale despite cutting back her calorie intake by 700 kcal every day. Burned out and frustrated, she gives up altogether and goes back to sitting on the couch every night, binging Netflix with a bag of potato chips.

So why did this happen?  The human body has a very specific response pattern to the stressors imposed on it. A stressor is anything that upsets the current state, or balance (scientifically speaking, “homeostasis”). A stressor can be physical, such as exercise or not eating sufficient calories. Stressors can also be emotional, in the form of mental stress brought on by daily life and events beyond our control.

In response to a physical stressor, the body will initiate changes, or adaptations, to return to balance. The body loves the status quo.  But with just the right amount of stress, combined with appropriate rest and recovery, the body will adapt by becoming better and stronger than before – thereby establishing a new status quo. This response is based on the Five Basic Principles of Fitness discussed in an earlier blog post. However, if we just keep applying more and more stress without recovery, the body can’t cope, and injury, illness, fatigue and exhaustion result.

This process is described by what’s known as the General Adaptation Syndrome (“GAS”), developed in 1950 by Dr. Hans Seyle, an medical doctor and researcher in Montreal Canada. He experimented with lab rats, observing how they experienced a series of physiological changes after they were exposed to stressful events. He ultimately concluded that these changes were not isolated, but rather a typical pattern of response to stress.

There are four phases in the GAS, which are all based around the current status quo – in this example an individual’s current level of fitness. The initial “alarm” phase occurs when the stressor is imposed, such as a hard workout. The body’s immediate response is fatigue, and a decrease in fitness. Following the initial alarm phase, a recovery or “resistance” period ensues, during which the body strives to return to the status quo. The body will then begin to adjust itself to a higher level of fitness in anticipation of the next training session, entering a period of “supercompensation” whereby fitness surpasses the initial status quo level. Yet without proper recovery between training sessions, the body moves into the exhaustion phase, where its resources become depleted to the extent that chronic fatigue, burnout, depression and decreased stress tolerance develop.

GAS simple diagram

To summarize: You start with your current baseline level of fitness, apply a stress, recover from the stress, then within a certain time frame, your baseline fitness increases – assuming that the cycle happens properly. Supercompensation is the desired effect. Keep following that progression and you’ll become stronger, faster, and leaner.

GAS advanced diagram

A well-designed exercise program can help you develop, improve and maintain your body’s overall fitness status quo, avoiding the setbacks resulting from improper recovery and overtraining. My approach with each client is to start by determining where you are right now, using that as a baseline to define each phase of your training program so we can measure your progress objectively. I’ll incorporate a variety of activities into your program to build strength, flexibility, balance, and reactive ability, all designed around your specific goal. We’ll work together to ensure the program fits into your life, ultimately “training smarter, not harder.”  And I’ll be there with you every step of the way to keep you on track, tweak the program as needed for any issues that come up, and help you to stay motivated toward your goal.

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