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3 types of 'voluntary stress' that may actually be good for your body

Some people believe that adding controlled amounts of "voluntary stress" to their daily routine makes their bodies and minds stronger.
/ Source: TODAY

Todd Becker starts each morning with a ritual that would literally take most people's breath away: a bone-chilling cold shower.

He usually skips breakfast. Lunch is often optional, too. In fact, he regularly eats just one meal a day. When it comes to exercise, he likes it intense and done on an empty stomach.

You might call it a miserable way to live, but Becker says it makes him feel great. He believes adding controlled amounts of “voluntary stress” to his daily routine makes his body and mind stronger, boosting every aspect of his health.

“Most people think of stress as something to be avoided,” Becker, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, told TODAY.

“But I kind of turn the whole thing on its head. I take a contrary view on this. We evolved to tolerate and handle stress, so my whole focus is on: How do you build the capacity to become more stress tolerant?”

Todd Becker takes part in one of his favorite forms of intense exercise: rock climbing.
Todd Becker takes part in one of his favorite forms of intense exercise: rock climbing.Courtesy Todd Becker

By carefully challenging his body, Becker is hoping to harness the power of its defense and repair mechanisms. He likens his philosophy to vaccination: You become more resilient by exposing yourself to a small amount of something that might be harmful in large doses.

The reward for his lifestyle, Becker, 58, said, is boundless energy and resilience.

“I like challenges and stressful situations because they energize me,” he noted. “I consider myself an extremely happy person. I’m just always up… I’m never down. I really attribute a lot of that to these practices.”

Indeed, there’s evidence short-term stress may offer some health benefits as the body releases hormones that stimulate us, give us a boost of energy and sharpen our senses. Research from Duke University found moderate stress improves learning and memory, and can spur our bodies to adapt.

A recent study, led by a Stanford University School of Medicine researcher, discovered short-term stress can boost the immune system in animals.

Read more: Can stress actually be good for you?

“A little stress can be a positive -- improved mental focus and energy, a sense of awareness coming from increased ‘arousal,’” said TODAY health and nutrition editor Madelyn Fernstrom. “This is in contrast to chronic stress — constant physical and mental stress, which wreaks havoc on the body (and has) biological symptoms, including cellular inflammation.”

Becker swears by these short bursts of “voluntary stress” he incorporates into his life, but they may not be for everyone:

Cold showers

Becker, who began this ritual 10 years ago, likens it to a natural anti-depressant.

“When you get out, you just feel this sense of freshness and exhilaration and ready to take on the day. For me, it lasts all day,” he said.

Mike Tipton, a professor of human and applied physiology at the University of Portsmouth who studies how the body responds to adverse environments, said cold water produces a sudden fall in skin temperature that prompts our body’s cold shock response.

That activates stress hormones, particularly noradrenaline, cortisol and adrenaline, which make people feel alert and exhilarated, Tipton noted. But evidence of benefits from repeated cold water immersion is “mixed, weak and inconclusive,” he added.

The cold shock response can cause a sudden increase in blood pressure, which can be dangerous for people with pre-existing hypertension, heart disease or aneurysms, Tipton warned.

Intermittent fasting

Becker regularly goes more than 12 hours without eating, though he doesn’t restrict his calories. His main interest is spacing out meals and reducing his exposure to glucose and fats for long periods of time. He usually eats dinner, but often skips breakfast or lunch, or both.

Read more: Skipping breakfast won't wreck your diet, after all

Depending on the duration of food restriction, the fuel used when fat is burned — ketones — can impact the brain and create a sense of well-being, Fernstrom said. Many people on high-fat, carb restricted diets report this feeling, she added.

Read more: Two meals a day may be better for weight loss than 'grazing'

Always check with your doctor first if you’re interested in fasting. A 24-hour fast is the limit for healthy people because that's when protein starts being broken down, Fernstrom said. Staying hydrated is a must.

Intense exercise

Becker combines fasting with intermittent bursts of exercise. His philosophy: Do it less frequently and more intensely.

Becker particularly likes rock climbing, running and cycling.

Studies have found high-intensity workouts have lots of benefits: They may help protect you from diabetes, boost heart health and yield better fitness results.

As always, check with your doctor before you start.

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This story was originally published on March 9 at 4:33 p.m.