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Mental or Physical Exhaustion: Assessing Your Energy

Gym group stretching.

Every stage of life has a way of adding stress (both mentally and physically) that can exhaust us sometimes. Learning to quickly assess why you are feeling tired and learning coping mechanisms to prevent serious fatigue is key to your happiness, productivity and general usefulness.  Being able to quickly assess that you are more mentally fatigued than physically tired and have the discipline to still do something physical is critical to preventing burnout or chronic stress symptoms such as:

  • Irritability
  • Body aches and soreness
  • Lack of focus
  • Loss of motivation to work, play, exercise, and eat well
  • Illness
  • And more than 50 others listed at Stress.org

I often say, sometimes life gets in the way of a scheduled workout plan.  Some days are meant to take as a rest day while some require you to physically burn off daily stresses.  The more you get into the habit of recognizing and overcoming this type of fatigue, the easier it is to actually do something to metabolize that stress in a healthful manner.

Mental and Physical Stress – Same Stress Hormonally but…

Working a long day at a desk, in an office or school, with multiple projects due is tiring and stressful.  But it is different than a long day of physical labor.  Both equally tiring, but to fight off the long term effects of stress, you need to do something physical if you are more mentally stressed.  If you are more physically tired, then you need to do a light stretch to loosen sore muscles and relax.  Breathing deep, eating well, hydrating, and getting a good night's sleep are all part of you being a better handler of stress today – regardless of the type.

Think of handling stress as how we have evolved as a species.  Stress in early human life focused on finding food and shelter, surviving and escaping attacks from animals, and other humans wanting your food and shelter.  Stress can also be dealt with as a natural fight or flight response.  Deal with it now before it becomes psychological and chronic to your health.

Consider Today's Human 

An example of a fight or flight response today for us is a resistance workout and an elliptical machine.  Of course there are many more ways to "fight and flight" such as calisthenics, martial arts and running – probably the most primal of all stress relievers we have today if you think about it. 

For the laborer who is physically tired, there is nothing wrong with you working out in the gym, but you should balance it with something cardiovascular too – just to breathe deep and pump some oxygen through your system.  This can help relax you as long as you are smart about not adding more physical stress to your day by overdoing it in the weight room too. 

Constant physical stress is not good either.  As you age and increase your responsibilities (home and family stresses) you will find that a physical stressful day of work plus additional hardcore weight training will require careful consideration with perfect recovery to avoid over-training syndrome. Call it over-training or lack of recovery, it exists!

Stress is a Killer, Literally

Constant physical, mental, and emotional stress can lead to an early death with many of these symptoms (from WebMD.com):

  • Mental health problems, such as depressionanxiety, and personality disorders
  • Cardiovascular disease, including heart disease, high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, heart attacks, and stroke
  • Diabetes
  • Menstrual problems and other sexual dysfunction, such as impotence and loss of sexual desire in both men and women
  • Loss of muscle mass, increase of fat production, obesity
  • Skin and hair problems such as acne, psoriasis, and eczema, and permanent hair loss
  • Gastrointestinal problems, such as GERD, gastritis, ulcerative colitis, and irritable colon

A Simple Way to Assess if you are Mentally or Physically Exhausted

Have some internal awareness.  Take a minute and think about your day. 

What have you done physically already? On your feet all day?  Ran in the morning?

Have you eaten well?  Hydrated properly? Do you need electrolytes (if sweaty during the day).

Do a body scan from head to toe.  Do you have any aches or pains?

If you are "tired" from sitting on your butt all day, do something physical – burn off that stress and get some needed exercise.  Anything will suffice even for 15-20 minutes.

If you are tired, achy, or sore, at the end of the work physical day, you may want to do some light cardio and stretch to feel better.  If you are low energy, it could be simply from dehydration and lack of replenishing electrolytes.  If could also be that you have not eaten anything in several hours.  Here are some quick food energy ideas.

Recap

After a long, mentally stressful work day, understand that you are not physically exhausted, you still have something left in the tank and burning off that stress in the form of some physical activity is the way to go. Follow it with deep breathing cardio or stretching to relax.

After a long physical day, do some light cardio, stretch, eat well, walk the dog, and relax at a minimum.  Understanding that added resistance training is not necessarily an everyday thing for you since you have been active all day, will help your body recover and feel less tired after the workday is done.

Naturally, these recommendations all depend on your age, current physical capabilities, your daily stress levels, and time.  When absolutely short on time, take a shower with an extra five minutes of letting the water hit your head, thinking of nothing, breathing deeply as a quick relaxation tool. Then, a light stretch while you wind down for the evening is going to help you far better than doing nothing, overeating, overdrinking (alcohol), and watching TV all night.

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Contributor

Stew Smith works as a presenter and editorial board member with the Tactical Strength and Conditioning program of the National Strength and Conditioning Association and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS). He has also written hundreds of articles on Military.com's Fitness Center that focus on a variety of fitness, nutritional, and tactical issues military members face throughout their career.

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