Updated: Jun 16, 2020
The phrase “time under tension” is common in the fitness world, especially among strength trainers and bodybuilders. It refers to how long a muscle is under strain during a set in a workout, and is most commonly used in association with building muscle--the slower the rep, the longer your muscle is in a state of tension, which theoretically leads to greater muscle growth. But time under tension has many (more useful) applications beyond aesthetic gains. Bringing awareness to how our bodies respond to time under tension is the key to unlocking sustained physical and mental health. It represents the best opportunity to train our bodies to respond to stressors, and thus better control our response in any situation.
While it seems counter-intuitive that creating physical stress can relieve psychological stress, scientists agree that exercise is an effective way to manage stress because it reduces stress hormones like cortisol and produces endorphins--a mood-boosting combination. But exercising does more than just boost our mood. It makes our body more capable of responding to stress by giving us a chance to practice processing stress in general. It forces our bodies’ physiological systems — all of which are involved in the stress response, whether psychological or physical — to communicate with each other more efficiently. When we work out, all of our physiological systems have to communicate--our cardiovascular system communicates with our muscular and renal systems, all of which are controlled by the central and sympathetic nervous systems, which also must communicate with each other. This fine-tuning of the body's ability to communicate under stress represents the true value of exercise: to prepare your body to respond to whatever stressors come its way, and to allow you to train your response to that stress.
During these uncertain times, practicing our ability to respond constructively to stress is crucial. If you’re moving your body, you’re training yourself to be comfortable under stress, putting yourself in a better position to handle stress in general--whether physical or emotional. This is why you should workout--not to make the gains you see on social media, but to get comfortable being uncomfortable. When viewed this way, time under tension--whether it’s in the gym, in the office, or in a relationship--becomes a tool to handle adversity, like a good meditation technique. This tool is sharpened over a lifetime, and if utilized correctly, creates mentally and physically resilient humans who are healthier for longer. So in these uncertain times, rather than working out to prevent gaining the “COVID-19,” think about exercising to strengthen your ability to handle whatever stress comes your way. Your mind and body will thank you for it.