May’s Great Experiment Fitness Experiment (+ 5 Pro Tips for Stress Cases!)

by Charlotte on April 30, 2012 · 17 comments

Have you ever wished you could just attach a computer screen to your forehead so you could see exactly what was going on in your body at any given moment? (Of course to read the monitor you’d have to stand in front of a mirror. And learn to read backwards text. And find a way to reduce the glare of glass reflecting glass. Clearly there are flaws in my daydreams. Hush.) Well this month I’m getting as close to that as scientifically possible by living out my dream of having every assessment known to mankind performed on me! While I might be a leeetle hyperbolic, this month for my Great Fitness Experiment, I’m getting the ultimate fitness nerd gift: a full battery of health assessments and a custom-designed fitness and nutrition plan tweaked to my biological needs. People used to mock my spreadsheets and now? They still mock my spreadsheets. Moving on.

When Lifetime Fitness, one of the premier gyms in the country, first contacted me about trying out their stress and resilience assessment I was super excited because what am I if not crazystressed out and really brittle? Plus I adore working with Lifetime. I first fell in love with them because of their magazine Experience Life. I’ve gushed about it on here before but it is one of the most scientifically rigorous health publications out there (that isn’t as dry as gluten-free grain-free toast). I can personally attest to this since I wrote an article for them and never in my writing life have I ever had a piece so thoroughly fact-checked. They’re sane, optimistic and smart – adjectives not generally associated with the fitness industry.

After completing my stress test, I was surprised and really excited when they offered to let me do all their tests! I love tests! I have always loved tests since I was a wee lass and learned that the key to pleasing people was giving them their answers back to them! (Yeah I’ll save that therapy discussion for another day.) I’ll keep you updated as I do each assessment but here’s what I’ve learned so far:

The Stress and Resilience Assessment

The short version: I learned that I’m really bad at spitting into test tubes. (Seriously try it! It’s way harder — and messier — than you think. It’s like trying to milk venom from a snake with no fangs and a lazy eye.) Also, my stress is not as bad as I thought and there are some very simple and easy things I can do to help ameliorate it. Skip to the bottom to go straight to the tips!

The long version for any other fitness geeks: Every Lifetime member (which I am not, actually, but they treat me nice just the same!) fills out a “my health score” survey online which catalogs their health history, preferences, illness, medications, supplements, current fitness routine and so forth. From there a trainer meets with them to design a plan based on this information and part of this plan may include some assessments.

Lifetime is unique in that they are all about preventative care instead of palliative care. So instead of waiting for you to get sick and then trying to figure out how that happened, they want to help you not get sick or injured in the first place. And the front line for preventing illness, according to Darryl Bushard, the scary smart assistant department head of training and weight loss coach, is your adrenal system. “Stress is the beginning of everything,” he explained as I sat across his desk clutching a packet of plastic vials and an unnervingly short instruction sheet. “The stress response affects all other organs and systems in the body. Too much stress can lead to inflammation which is the #1 bad guy when it comes to your health.”

The spit test is designed to test your stress by measuring how your levels of cortisol (the “stress hormone”) fluctuate throughout the day and to test your resiliency by checking your levels of DHEA (Dehydroepiandrosterone – a steroid hormone that is the precursor to many other hormones in your body). The whole point, Bushard explained, is “to get you to recognize what your body needs better than your doctor.” Given my recent bad experience with our health care system I’ll all for this!

To do this assessment all I had to do was spit in a vial every few hours and then mail it to a lab. I am a little ashamed to admit how uncoordinated of a spitter I am. Also, spit is not clear like I had originally thought. And there’s a… smell. Ew. ANYHOW. When I got my results back, I read the sheet, realized it meant absolutely nothing to me and called in Paul Kriegler, Lifetime’s registered dietician, to help me interpret it. It may seem odd to have an RD interpret the results of this kind of test but Bushard explained that when it comes to managing stress diet is more important than workouts. Plus, Kriegler is also scary smart (starting to see a pattern here).

“So do you do afternoon workouts?” was Kriegler’s first question. When I answered that I am a morning workout girl – ideal since that is when your cortisol levels are highest and therefore you have the most energy for them – he pointed out the large spike in my cortisol in the late afternoon (4 p.m.) and then my subsequent crash in the evening (8:30 p.m.). “What’s happening there? Clearly something is really stressing you out, so much so that your cortisol spikes and then disappears. I bet you’re exhausted at night.” The reason? That’s when my kids get home from school and all heck breaks loose until bedtime! Turns out my kids stress me out way more than my workouts! Kriegler pointed out some very simple changes I could make with my nutrition to help give me some extra energy for the afternoon so I won’t have the crash later on. (The protein shakes are baaack!) He also recommended some supplements to interrupt the vicious stress-inflammation cycle. And that was it! No guilt tripping about my jelly bean habit – although he did point out that the reason I craved them in the afternoon was because I was over-stressed and under-nourished then and that they were only adding to my stress response – no crazy cleanses or strict diets or carb bans. It was all so… sensible!

The second piece was my DHEA which was on the low end of normal. Considering that resiliency is one of the things I most want to cultivate, I was all about how to bring that up. And as anyone who’s read a fitness mag lately knows, DHEA supplements are all the rage. Kriegler actually cautioned against those saying that they should only be used in particular cases where your hormone levels are way out of balance and even then for a limited period of time. “Taking too much DHEA can actually make your symptoms worse.” Good to know.

So what are their best tips for reducing stress and increasing resiliency?

1. Get enough sleep. In addition, go to bed early. Every hour of sleep you get before midnight is twice as restorative as the sleep you get after midnight. “Get to bed by 10. Every night.” advises Bushard.

2. Eat high quality, whole foods.

3. Only do as much as exercise as is necessary. Overtraining is a surefire way to burn out your adrenal system.

4. Control your environment. Use glass instead of plastic, avoid toxins when you can, get fresh air.

5. Take heart, all this is under your control. Bushard pointed out that we’re conditioned to think that it’s just our personality to be stressed out but the majority of these factors are entirely under our control. We just have to be teachable.

Of these factors, sleep is the most difficult one for me. I can only work while my kids are sleeping and since Jelly Bean doesn’t nap anymore (the horror!!), that leaves me only after 8:30 p.m. Considering I have 4-6 hours of work to do, I am chronically sleep deprived. This test made me realize that I really need to make sleep more of a priority in my life. Staying up late is a short-term solution that only makes my problems worse in the long run. And this may mean doing less work, especially since telling my kids to be less demanding hasn’t worked. So, if you’ll excuse me it’s 10:42, way past my (new) bedtime!

What is your biggest stressor? Anyone else a test junkie like I am? Any tips for me on how to get to bed earlier?


{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Nicole May 1, 2012 at 12:06 am

Curious to know what supplements the RD recommended?


Sabrina @ Fit.Laugh.Love May 1, 2012 at 6:40 am

Eee! When I worked as a trainer at Lifetime we got to do all the tests for free. That is hands down the one thing I miss most about working there. I am in much better shape now than when I worked there and would love to retest on all of them (particularly the VO2Max).


Sara May 1, 2012 at 6:43 am

This is fascinating! Does Lifetime do tests for those who aren’t members? I doubt it, but thought I’d check. The blurb about DHEA was really interesting as my doctor has had me taking it for about a year because of my hypothyroid and PCOS (talk about difficulty losing weight, if anyone has any helpful hints send them my way!). How long is too long in taking DHEA? I’d really love to get another heath professional’s opinion on this.

As for getting to bed earlier, and this is probably easier said than done, but I set a bedtime and tell myself I can’t go past it. I’m religious about hitting the sack on the dot.


SinnerElla May 1, 2012 at 8:14 am

Sara, as mentioned hormone issues play a role in how much DHEA one should take and for how long. Having a hypothyroid disease and PCOS may fall into that category. I would suggest that if you’re concerned with the amount your doctor suggests or for the length of time in which you’ve been taking it, you should do some research. If after finding RELIABLE sources and you’re still not sure or you’re uncomfortable with what you’ve found, you may want to discuss it with your physician or your specialist. If your concerns aren’t put to rest, you always have the option of getting a 2nd opinion or seeing another specialist. (Of course, this is all dependent on your health care provider, insurance and personal situation)
Best of luck to you. Health issues are never fun to begin with, but when contradictory reports and research is found, it makes for a very stressful decision. The one thing to always remember is that ultimately YOU are the master decision maker for your own body.


Courtney May 1, 2012 at 6:54 am

I can’t tell you what a difference getting enough sleep has made in my life. My husband and I are both big wine drinkers and used to have wine 4-5 nights a week (this went on for 2-3 years) and eventually, it started to disrupt my sleep. Of course I wasn’t about to let that stop me from having wine, so I just lived with poor sleep for all this time. Eventually I decided that I needed to do something about all the stress and unhappiness (I have a history of ED/depression/anxiety) I was feeling, and the wine drinking, and therefore lack of sleep, was one of the first things to go. Somehow getting enough sleep makes it easier to take care of the rest; I have an easier time eating well, exercising enough but not being inclined to overdo it, dealing with my husband and son with more patience. These days, I head up for bed around 9, get in my pjs and read for a while, then lights out around 10. Yeah, I am only 31 but whatever, it works for me!


Dr. J May 1, 2012 at 7:02 am

Well, they certainly are all about numbers, no? Not a good thing to get to focused on in my opinion. Be careful with DHEA, lots of side effects to the mother hormone. Definitely beware if you are a guy.

Like your list at the end!


cursingmama May 1, 2012 at 8:43 am

I would love to know what was suggested nutritionally & supplement wise to help reduce stress. I find that my time in the gym (after work in the evening) is often the least stressful time of the day for me mentally; there is something magical about concentrating on what I’m doing there and letting all the other “stuff” of the day fall by the wayside.

I recently did the New Leaf Metabolic assessment available at the YMCA and am just starting to follow the recommendations for cardio improvement (a place of woe for me). Knowing my correct zones & having an accurate heart rate monitor to let me know I’m working enough is new & exciting… although very sweaty.


Abby May 1, 2012 at 9:02 am

The sleep thing! Last night I went to bed at 1am. Damn. Do you know what the science is behind sleep before midnight being better? I really, really have to work on this. It’s just so hard when I don’t get home from the gym until 7:45 and then we eat dinner. I feel like I have no time to just relax.


colleenzo May 1, 2012 at 1:36 pm

I love taking tests!!! That one sounds awesome, I wonder if I could find a way to sneak myself in! My biggest stressor is definitely finances. I always feel like we’re just one wrong step away from disaster (mostly because historically, we’re just one wrong step away from disaster…but that’s another story) so it’s pretty much constant low-level stress. In general, though, I don’t feel too ‘stress-spikey’, so I’d be interested in what my spit has to say! I try to get to bed around 10/10:30 every night, but I sleep with 4 dogs in bed, so I can’t say it’s ever very restful…


geosomin May 1, 2012 at 2:58 pm

I wish I could offer advice about sleep. It’s currently my biggest challenge…


bjbella5 May 1, 2012 at 4:47 pm

I am printing out the light switch cartoon to show my husband, so very me!

Getting enough sleep and dealing with the 2:30pm to 8:30pm time are my biggest issues. I forced myself to start exercising again 5:30am, after a few days I couldn’t stay awake after 10:00pm even if I tried. Not the best way, but it worked :-).

The spring after-school activities are actually helping me with the afternoon crazy time (3 kids each on different soccer teams, as well as football, volleyball, gymnastics and piano). While it gets crazy busy, the kids are working out all their energy in a productive way (rather than tearing the house apart crazy).


Heather Eats Almond Butter May 1, 2012 at 7:14 pm

Sorry Jelly Bean is no longer napping – I don’t look forward to that day as nap time is the only “me time” I get these days. Anyway, maybe you could do a little work after dinner but before putting kids to bed and put the husband in charge? I just know how important sleep is, and I hope you’re able to get more soon.

So interesting about the spike in cortisol when all the kids get home. I imagine things must get a little crazy at that time, and I totally get the jelly bean thing, although I’d be reaching for the chocolate. :)


Dhyann May 1, 2012 at 8:01 pm

Wow this is a help for me and for all the readers as well.. I guess it is time for us to be fit and be aware with our health always..


Serena May 1, 2012 at 8:31 pm

About the sleeping, I read that turning off all electronics WELL before bedtime is a must. I do not follow this (aka, as my laptop is on my lap at this very second) but I would like to get better. That means no computer, phone, tv, ipods…. hard because I listen to books on my ipod now :/


quix May 1, 2012 at 9:53 pm

Oooh you know I love numbers! Can’t wait to follow this one!

I have no kids so I can’t pretend to know what you’re going through there with the sleep thing. I spent most of my post-adolescent life sleep deprived to be productive while having fun, so it was just normal. Sleep felt like a waste. Once I started running and gave up caffeine, my body just *shut down* and didn’t really accept any less than 8 hours, and if I try to cheat it, it forces me to make up for it.

Also, I have to fall asleep to TV, otherwise my brain turns on. Watching and then listening to a story lulls me to sleep.


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