The first in this series of articles addressed musculo-skeletal stress and touched very lightly on the other types of stress that our clients more than likely encounter. To refresh your memory, the three main types of stress are musculo-skeletal, limbic/emotional and visceral. Whatever stress one encounters will either fall specifically into one of these categories or into a combination of two or more. In fact, as I discussed previously, stress is additive in the body, so one type of stress will often provoke a reaction in a different system within the body. For instance, have you ever noticed that when you experience a lot of emotional stress it effects your digestion (visceral system)?
This article will conclude our exploration of the causes and effects of stress and will discuss how to handle this phenomenon in ways that will most effectively bring your clients towards their goals. Because recognizing stress and its etiology is so important to effectively designing an appropriate strength and conditioning program, I will also further discuss how to recognize and respond to the stressors your clients encounter.
Clients and colleagues of mine commonly hear me refer to the human body as a checking account at a bank. Every time a person (let’s call him Jerry) experiences any stress, he writes a check. As you know, writing checks isn’t a bad thing; after all, it’s how we keep the electricity on, etc. Writing a check becomes a bad thing however, when there’s no money in the account to back it up. The check bounces. And, just because Jerry still has checks in the check book, does NOT meat that there’s any money in his account. The other thing is that the bank doesn’t care to whom the check is written; it still has the same effect on the account. Similarly, the body doesn’t care what the stressor is; it has the same effect on the body. The body is like a great account with a massive credit line; that is, even when there’s no money in the account, the bank will often cover checks that do not have sufficient funds to cover them. The credit line kicks in and covers the check. This keeps Jerry from bouncing checks and in turn tarnishing his credit rating. The trick is that usually these type of credit lines have VERY high interest rates.
One’s body has a credit line too to cover extreme stress even when it has no more resources. However, just like the bank, that system in the body has a limit, and there is usually interest that must be paid on the other side. In both situations, if there aren’t adequate deposits being made, and if close attention isn’t paid, checks will eventually start bouncing. The idea in life is to maintain your body’s checking account with a positive balance. Simply put, make at least as many deposits as withdrawals.
To continue this comparison of the physiological load system to a bank account, sometimes one needs to write a check. Money is worthless until it is spent, and sometimes money must be spent in order to make more money. In human body terms, we need to experience degrees of stress so we can rebuild better, stronger, faster, etc.
Now that I have potentially confused everyone into thinking their body is the equivalent of the Bank of America, I’ll discuss different types of checks and deposits – and most importantly, how to make your clients vitality ‘millionaires.’
Let’s say that your client has this so called “account," and the account has a $1000 balance. Your client has access to this account three ways. They have checks, they can get cash from an ATM, or they can pay with their debit card. The thing is, no matter how they choose to access the account, all types have the same effect: they deplete. This is analogous to one’s body. The $1000 is symbolic of the physiological load he can handle. His emotions are the checks, his visceral system is ATM cash and his musculo-skeletal system is the debit card. Every time he uses one of the three aforementioned means of accessing his account, his balance is negatively affected. Conversely, he can also make deposits to credit his account, or increase the amount of physiological load his system can handle.
First, let’s look at emotional stress. Emotional stress stresses the - you guessed it – emotions. Emotional stress is a given. There’s no one who lives without it. As a personal trainer, physical therapist, osteopath, etc., there’s nothing you can do to eliminate this from your client’s life. What you can do is help them to recognize the stressors and how to constructively deal with them.
The initial step is to take time in your assessment of your client to get to know them as an individual. This is the foundation for treating the whole of them. What do they do for a living? Is their life at home a sanctuary or does it irritate them? I recommend finding a good Psychologist or Psychiatrist to help you with this process. They can educate you on the signs of emotional stress, its causes as well as its effects. Once you have this information, you can create a questionnaire (again, get a qualified therapist to help you with this) for your clients. This is an integral part of the assessment process and can be re-examined periodically to show areas of improvement or areas that need improvement. What’s more, your therapist friend should also be a very important part of your referral base.
It is interesting to note that there are a lot of people who thrive and feel energized in an environment that heavily taxes someone else. Context is also relevant. A situation that is manageable one day may not be on another day. Similarly, depending on how much money is in the account, the equivalent of a $100 check may or may not make any difference. For instance, when a child is coloring and goes outside the lines, they may be devastated (anyone who has kids can verify this); but if an adult were to do the same thing, no big deal, right? Or, someone you know may love to speak in public and someone else you know loses sleep at the mere thought of it. After your initial assessment, you will know the amount of physiological load your client is experiencing (i.e., how much money is in their account.)
Understanding your client is much more than simply hearing their goals. It is similar to reading a road map. When I am at point A and I want to get to point B, I would ideally go straight from one to another. That rarely is the case though, as there are almost always inevitable obstacles. These are important to recognize. The smart way from A to B is to take into account the obstacles, which way is the most enjoyable, and which way is actually possible. If I’m trying to get from A to B and in between is a massive and treacherous mountain pass, and I happen to have a four-wheel-drive vehicle, I can take that road and enjoy it. If I’m driving a bus, however, I had better seek an alternate route or face overwhelming risk.
So when your new client comes to you because he wants to improve his body composition, will he be able to go straight to it via direct route or will he have to make some adjustments? If he’s under a lot of load and he starts a program that doesn’t take this into account, he’s likely to get injured (refer to part one of this series for an explanation of this). The smart choice here would be to embrace the individual circumstances of this individual and address them rather than try to “plow right through” them.
Understanding your client is much more than seeing where A and B are – it is knowing what kind of musculoskeletal, emotional and visceral vehicle he/she is driving, the condition of that vehicle, and the obstacles he is going to have to negotiate on the way.
Visceral stress is that stress which concerns the internal organs. Visceral stress can be on the liver, the heart, the intestines, the lungs, etc., and can be highly dangerous. Since 70 percent of the immune system is located in the gut and 90 percent of disease originates in the colon, it is easy to see how an ill-performing digestive system will wreak havoc on our health.
How can you tell if your client has a healthy digestive system? Easy, assess it! During your initial evaluation, ask them specific questions about their digestion. In fact, your clients may be symptomatic on the surface. You can see it on their face and body. Do they have a distended gut? Do they have a disproportionate amount of body fat around the abdomen? Is their skin flakey? Are their ears waxy? Are there dark circles under their eyes? Bumps on the back of their arms? The list goes on and on and on. This is where a very keen nutritionist and a good endocrinologist come in. These professionals can help you learn how to assess these areas. They are also key players in your referral team.
What are they eating? I am assuming that most of your clients have weight loss goals. In this situation, a nutritional analysis is paramount. I recommend at least five to seven days with a weekend in there somewhere (almost everyone alters behavior from weekend to weekday). The best way to get accurate information from your clients is to give them daily nutrition forms. On this form, they will be asked what they ate, how much they ate, at what time it was eaten and how they felt after it was eaten.
Food allergies and (in)tolerances should also be addressed. If your client is eating food that he is sensitive to, it is stressing his body. His body is responding to this food item with an immune reaction. If he is like most people, he will eat almost the same thing every single day. If this limited menu contains inappropriate foods for this person, then he is stressing his body virtually non stop.
After the information has been gathered through your assessment, you need to do something with it. If you aren’t a Registered Dietician or a licensed Nutritionist and are not schooled in metabolic typing or how to detect food intolerances and/or allergies, you need to refer these people to someone who is qualified to handle these situations.
Are they drinking alcohol? I highly recommend anyone who is reading this article to read about what alcohol does to the body and mind. There is virtually endless literature about this subject. For starters, look for references in medical nutritional and/or psychiatric journals. If your clients are drinking alcohol, they’re not even in the game.
The negative effects of alcohol are so vast that it’s analogous to getting cash at the ATM, writing a check and making a debit card purchase simultaneously. Alcohol impedes cognitive function and nervous system function. It can alter brain chemistry, and by compromising proper chemical levels in the brain, proper brain wave function decreases– which will then impair the overall cognitive ability to handle stress. Alcohol is toxic the liver (think: “intoxicated”). The visceral effects of alcohol then progress to the musculoskeletal system. When the liver becomes toxic, it often reflexes to the right shoulder. One sign of liver toxicity is chronic shoulder pain. Alcohol also depletes vital nutrients and oh yeah, it is expensive!
Indeed, it is necessary to learn to understand your clients from a holistic perspective. That’s how you can ultimately be in a position to help them. We aren’t mechanics. We can’t just give them the results they want. We have to guide them. We are integrated beings of body, mind and spirit. The three components cannot be separated. They are all vital to overall health. This is the reality of life. When life is out of order, so then is the body (unless there is cheating and that is a whole other subject). When you help your clients get their lives in order, then and only then will they be ready to work out.
- “Alcohol Research and Health,” Department of Health and Human Services, 1999.
- Chek, Paul. “Flatten Your Abs Forever”. Video. CHEK Institute.
- Wilson, James L. PhD. Adrenal Fatigue, the 21st Century Stress Syndrome. Petaluma, CA: Smart Publications, 2001.