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?