It was 11:30 in the morning. I had been beyond exhausted for some time and longed to feel some kind of spark in my step, but I had no more fuel in my tank. I wanted to collapse, to sleep for the rest of the day.
Perhaps, I thought, if I just went home to sleep for a few hours, I might just wake up feeling normal again.
But no. Sleeping for 2 to 3 hours didn’t bring better energy, nor did the next day. In fact, this cycle went on for 2 years before I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue.
Your adrenal glands are responsible for keeping the well-being of your body in balance through hormones. These glands also produce the hormone cortisol, which is released during your fight-or-flight response. As you can imagine, cortisol is extremely useful at times when you need to be alert and escape danger.
However, according to Harvard Medical School’s stress management report, people today are uniquely in this state of fight or flight for too long. Typically, after a stressful event, your hormones return to normal, but when (and if) they don’t, the accumulated stress can lead to a compromised immune system and digestive system and general full body burnout.
In the worst of my “burnout” phase, I was getting frequent colds and coughs, feeling lethargic, and experiencing mental fogs. I was sleeping inconsistently, often waking up at 3 a.m. Everything was getting harder. My motivation for life decreased, and my passion for fitness was deteriorating. Just never feeling quite right was becoming normal.
The doctor who diagnosed me said, point blank, “Your body is worn out. You have no fuel left. And if you keep doing what you are doing, it will get worse.”
At the time, my hours as a personal trainer were 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., with 15 classes per week of barbell, circuits, weights, step workouts, and boxing. I got some breaks during the day but did most of each class alongside the clients. This schedule was obviously not sustainable for someone in the midst of burnout and extreme fatigue.
The fitness industry has always been a passion of mine. At age 8, I used to get up and tape “Aerobics Oz Style” on the TV and then do the routines after school. I told a local gym I was 15 when I was actually 14 so I could join. But at 29, restoration was lacking in my lifestyle.
I’m now 37, and it took me a while to realize that energy management is not just about pushing yourself nonstop and then collapsing into sleep. The restoration and stress relief you give yourself in waking hours count too.
And addressing adrenal fatigue wasn’t as easy as telling people about it. It’s not a visible ailment everyone will be supportive about. (You might experience darkness under your eyes, acne, and a flushed face and feel a bit more irritable, but pinning all that on overproduction of cortisol without a diagnosis can feel like quite a stretch to people.)
My primary focus was on getting back my energy, as I had none
Recovery is such an important part of fitness and training. If you don’t allow enough time for rest and stress relief activities for your mind and body, overtraining can accumulate and cause burnout. Minimizing activities was my priority.
That meant no more boxing, running, weights, cycle classes, or circuits. These fitness activities left a numb feeling in my body, left me feeling lethargic for hours afterward, and made the mental fog worse.
On this break, I developed a deeper understanding of the mind and body connection I was missing. I knew I could use these disciplines to aid my recovery, and that’s how exercises like yoga and Pilates drew my attention.
And what do you know — as soon as I started these classes, I felt a sense of energy that lasted.
Both fell under that “mind-body” umbrella, providing a way to exercise without my heart rate skyrocketing. They aided in my overall recovery, decreasing my burnout and lethargy over time — and the main difference was the pace.
Yoga and Pilates were much slower paced. The classes offered quieter music or none at all. The gym workouts I was used to had pumping, high energy music and moves that put more physical load on the body, such as jumping or resistance training in an effort to make your heart rate go much higher.
But Pilates and yoga took the mind-body exercise approach, focusing on breath and connection to each muscle, especially smaller muscles. I started creating a better level of body awareness, and my core movements (like squats and push-ups) and posture became more aligned.
“Health” today consists of mental, social, and physical well-being, but an overlooked part of that mental well-being is the ability to thrive in your thinking and creativity. True health, to me, also means having the energy to be creative. I think people should be able to tap into this part of themselves at any time.
And it’s important to know how your creativity can become impaired when you’re burned out.
After ditching the hard-core fitness culture I’d been a part of, I started to incorporate more mindful eating and stress relief practices like meditation. I even started saying “no” to social activities that would cause me anxiety or require a lot of energy output.
All this, combined with my newfound fitness regimen, put me on track to feeling better for longer and slowly eliminating my need for daytime naps. Even the mental fog gradually began to lift.
There were times I would push my new boundaries. The minute I got cocky and tried to run, do weights, or skip a nap or meditation, my physical energy and mental health would plummet backward for days.
So this is where the line in the sand was drawn: I would not do any of those fast-paced and high impact activities ever again.
And I have not done them for almost 10 years now. Instead, my well-being routine consists of a few Pilates and yoga sessions each week, a few brisk walks, and meditation every other day, plus mindful eating. That’s it.
Every phase in your life requires a different approach to exercise and well-being. Listen to your body and stay true to what your needs are at any given time.
Vanessa Bartlett is a presenter, writer, and Pilates and holistic fitness trainer. She has received an award for Innovation in Healthcare and has created a program to help others reset their bodies and energy. Join her on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.