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Routine vs. stress: Both have benefits in shaping a better you

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A scattered aisle separates me from six men. Grown men, both bearded and shorn, all uniformly tattered from a weekend of forever-censored fun. In total there are nine of us sprawled out in the Phoenix airport, our carry-on bags strewn about and eyes half-open, staring blankly at the scene in front of us, as though we have just endured a natural disaster. And maybe we have. After a weekend bachelor party in the sunny-south, I -- along with my body -- am aching for routine. A friend of mine working several jobs -- both shift work and normal hours -- recently shared with me the same sentiment: He is having trouble dealing with his forever-varying lifestyle.

While the stimulus of change, variability and adventure is welcomed and undoubtedly beneficial every so often and over the short term, your body needs an adequate period of consistency in order to function properly and avoid any "slink-cidents." Here are the two sides of the argument. But first, a quick lesson on homeostasis. Homeostasis is the regulation of our body's internal conditions in order to maintain an equilibrium of health and functioning. Knock it out of whack for too long and you're screwed -- stress it a bit every now and then to become more resilient. We can manage internal conditions by evaluating and modifying external stressors like exercise and workload, as well as slightly more internal factors like diet and sleep.


Argument No. 1: Routine is a requirement for your body to maintain homeostasis: Today, most people consider routine a synonym for boredom, and an exciting life is one that cannot abide by a schedule. Wrong. When it comes to sleep, work, diet and exercise, routine is a staple and can provide reprieve in an otherwise hectic lifestyle. Physiologically, for your body to get really good at these tasks (yes, sleep is actually an active state), scientists will argue you need anywhere between three and six weeks of consistent stimulus.

Consider this common quote describing "Leisure Sickness": "I've been working like crazy for the last few months, and now as soon as I'm on holidays -- I get sick!" Even though the overall stress on your body is high (but not TOO high), your body deals well with consistency, and knows it can't get sick because of work or life requirements. It balances stress with adrenaline, and manages other internal factors in order to remain in balance. As soon as that changes (even though it's for the better), the outcome is often cold or flu-like symptoms until your body can again restore equilibrium.


Argument No. 2: Stress (eustress), is essential for your personal progression and adaptation: Every so often, homeostasis needs to be exceeded in order to adapt and improve. The term "eustress" and general adaptation syndrome (GAS), is one of the most interesting and applicable theories I've ever studied. First coined by the brilliant endocrinologist Hans Selye, eustress (the opposite being distress), refers to a positive response to stress; essentially a new challenge in life -- psychological or physiological -- that makes you better. If you don't modify or progress different aspects of your life by introducing new and exciting stimuli and instead remain in the same routine for too long, you (and your body) remain unchanged -- and we all want to improve... right?

It's easy to relate this to physical training. If your training program is well made and stresses your body properly, it will adapt by becoming better at whatever your training goal is. But that program needs to change and become more challenging over time. If it remains the same for too long (or progresses too fast), you will not get the desired adaptations.

Chronic stress can easily be our downfall, but at the same time it's necessary to create challenges in life in order to satisfy our physiological and psychological need for success and satisfaction. While repeated deadlines and sleepless nights writing articles (it is now 12:36 a.m.) may create more DIStress than eustress, getting up in the middle of the night to crank country tunes while ripping down a dirt road may be just what the doctor ordered; it's hard to be stressed when you're truly happy.

Over the next few weeks we will talk about the science of the more controllable internal and external stressors that affect homeostasis, for better or for worse, and how you can balance routine and excitement to maintain the happiest and healthiest you.

We welcome your questions. Email and you could be featured in a future article. Tim Shantz is a certified athletic therapist and trainer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 24, 2014 D17

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