Are You Working Out Or Burning Out?

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We wake up. We check in. We email. We dial up. We brainstorm. We Skype. We Slack. We lean in. We reach out. We crank it out. We hit the gym. We warm up. We cycle. We sprint. We backbend. We cross-train. We double up. We cool down. We burn out.

We Work More Than Ever

We live in a burnout culture. We're always plugged in, always an email, a text, a call, a ping away from work. We spend screen time building our personal brand, filtering social posts, editing our profiles, polishing and preparing our online presence like a nation of media managers.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows a rising trend in the hours Americans work, edging straight up through the 1990s. The author of The Overworked American, Juliet Schor surmised that by 1990, Americans worked almost a month longer per year than they did in 1970. The technology that was meant to increase Americans' leisure time has bound us through inescapable connectivity. We know it's going on. Stories on all our screens tell us we're burned out.

We Work Out More Than Ever

Whether it's in response to the building demands of our work or simply another manifestation of our manic mentality, the result is the same. We're hitting the gym with the same intensity we bring to our 24/7 jobs. Over the last four years, attendance at fitness boutiques has risen 70 percent. In the 10-year span between 2005 and 2015, gym memberships have risen by over 14 million, bringing 2015's total to 55.3 million at the nearly 35,000 gyms nationwide.

Now a new year dawns, and with it come the boot camps and the membership incentives and the psychic pressure to whip ourselves more than ever into shape. If you're already feeling weary, you're not alone.

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What Is Burnout?

Christina Maslach, a Cal Berkeley professor and leading researcher in the field of burnout, has largely defined our understanding of the syndrome as a cycle of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy caused by chronic stress. Sound familiar? In one survey, 70 percent of workers across the United States reported feeling those effects. Among finance professionals, the number is even higher, broaching 85 percent. Chances are you've felt the weight of burnout before. We know that stress is a killer, linked to depression, drug use, increased mortality. It's a drain on the economy, too. Dr. Rebecca Goldin, a professor at George Mason University and director of STATS.org, estimates the cost of stress to the United States to be $300 billion. Insidious and pervasive, burnout is a cultural ill that shows no signs of slowing.

Is Your Fitness Routine Part of the Problem?

Is your workout the antidote to your stresses, or is it another cortisol-raising to-do-list item, depriving you of sleep or socialization with friends? Los Angeles–based fitness expert and wellness coach Juliet Kaska suggests asking yourself these questions:

  1. Do I train hard every time I exercise?
  2. Have I been more moody or irritable than usual?
  3. Have I been injured, or remained injured, for the last few months (three or more)?
  4. Have I been working out hard but not getting the results I would expect for the effort I have put in?
  5. Have I been feeling less hungry lately?
  6. Do I often I have an excessively dry mouth?
  7. Have I been feeling less confident?
  8. Have I been unusually tired lately?
  9. Am I as excited about my workout as I once was?

If you've racked up more than a few yeses, your fitness routine may be worth reworking. Consider why it is you exercise. If it's for your physical health, stress relief, weight loss, or muscle gain, it could be that the exertion of your activity is raising you cortisol to a level at which it competes with your goals. One study found that women who exercised twice a week were as fit as women who worked out six times a week. It might just be possible to maintain your level of fitness and regain some of your personal time by restructuring your routine.

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Make Your Workout Work for You

Fitness can be your ally in the face of burnout. It doesn't need to contribute to the problem. Here's how to find balance:

Quit the gym.

This may sound blasphemous, and it isn't advice meant for everyone—we've had some high highs at gyms across the country—but if your hardcore, fluorescent-lit, pain-is-gain gym is pushing you to unhealthful feats, call it quits. Cancel that gym membership. (I said it.) It's not what you typically hear in January, but despite what the rhetoric says, you can still be fit without a membership.

Incorporate movement into your day organically.

Walking to work, choosing the stairs, parking at the end of the lot—they're suggestions we've heard before, but they are daily choices to live by. Consider the combined power of those actions when practiced month after month. Being active in small, purpose-driven increments takes your focus off of the scoreboard and puts it back on the world around you.

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Chill out.

Get those cortisol levels down by all means necessary. Napping, petting a dog, walking around your neighborhood, reading a book, or having tea with a friend can all help you achieve your health goals if they contribute to lowering cortisol levels. The best, proven method for stress relief is meditation. Seriously, do you need another reason to do it? Sit down, slow your breath, and heal your mind. The gym will always be there.

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