Emotional stress is inevitable. It’s how you deal with it that matters. Experts’ advice: Get some exercise. Turn that tension into positive energy that calms your mind and strengthens your body.
Stress usually has negative connotations—excessive responsibilities, crazy deadlines, and traffic jams. However, there is a positive side to stress. It releases fight-or-flight brain chemicals that can motivate us to action. Used effectively, it can increase mental and physical functioning. Release stress on the Exercise Floor, and you’ll likely power up your workout while soothing your mind. In turn, this outlet will keep daily stress levels moderate. You’ll have just enough to be sharp, yet remain healthy.
Recent studies indicate an additional treatment for stress and anxiety that is not often prescribed. Exercise. Although medication and talk therapy are useful, exercise comes with a multitude of benefits, which makes it very user-friendly. Physicians and psychotherapists are aware of exercise as a stress-reducer; however, it is not usually officially prescribed—yet.
Two researchers, Jasper Smits, a psychologist at Southern Methodist University, and Michael Otto of Boston University wrote a guidebook for mental health professionals so practitioners feel more comfortable treating anxiety with an exercise regimen. They are also working on guidelines for primary care providers and consumers. Having publications available validates the “runner’s high” experienced by so many. Exercise releases pent-up tensions along with feel-good hormones that counteract the negative effects of stress. It’s a double shot of goodness.
I’m Already Overwhelmed
You may find yourself thinking exercise is a great solution, but adding anything to an overbooked day will only intensify stress. Truthfully, you can’t afford not to workout, especially when under stress.
Suffering ongoing stress keeps the body in a constant state of alert, with heightened senses and levels of stress hormones like cortisol. This leaves your body susceptible to everyday viruses, such as colds and flu, as well as more serious chronic conditions, such as heart disease, obesity, and high blood pressure. These are stress-inducers in their own right, for which you surely don’t have time.
Research has also found that regular exercise can build your immunity toward future stress. Just as it helps you become resilient against germs (see Fitness and Wellness News “Build up Your Defenses” at www.fitnessandwellnessnews.com/health/build-up-your-defenses/), it can build up your tolerance for stress. As you enjoy better physical health, your mental health benefits simultaneously.
Getting involved with friends and social activities is frequently recommended for those suffering from stress. During tough times and everyday crises, a support network of friends shares the burden, offers a fresh perspective, and listens to your concerns. As a Center member, enjoy the added dimension of social workouts. Whether through Group Fitness classes or on the Exercise Floor, the social setting allows opportunities to develop friendships. A workout buddy can motivate you in exercise and beyond.
Daily Exercise Rx
Exercise provides you with energy and stamina to make the most of your hours. Spaced correctly, you can reap the appropriate effects from specific workouts throughout your day. This is also a solution for those without a large piece of time to dedicate to exercise.
Consider starting your day with a trip to the Center for morning yoga or an aquatic workout. These are refreshing ways to ease into a new day. At lunchtime, relieve the kinks with a quick power walk or some gentle stretches. If time allows, try a lunchtime Group Fitness class at the Center. These are better options than venting on your boss or downing antacids.
Before heading home, hit the Center for weightlifting, kickboxing, or other high-intensity workouts. These tame the irritated mind so you’re better able to enjoy the evening. You may arrive home later, but you’ll probably be more pleasant company. A release of the day’s frustrations with an invigorating workout makes one less likely to snap over a burnt dinner or kid’s missing homework assignment.
At bedtime, set aside quiet moments for meditation. Resist the urge to spend your last waking hours on the computer or phone. Shut off electronic noise so you may invite peace into your mind. Here are a few tips from the most accomplished yogis:
- Create a safe haven. Find a small corner in your living space that you can associate with peaceful thoughts. Perhaps light a candle or enjoy a small table-top fountain.
- Reflect on the positive aspects of your life and give thanks. Maybe it was a rough day. Simply be thankful that you are breathing.
- Affirm. As you inhale, recognize you are strong enough to handle situations that have developed throughout your day. As you exhale, open your heart to treat everyone with compassion (even the stressed-out maniac who cut you off the road earlier).
- Be mindful of your breathing. Concentrate on creating a slow, steady rhythm of inhaling and exhaling. Mindfulness of breath throughout your day helps relieve stress and maintain a brighter outlook.
- Lie down. Mentally check in with the parts of your body. Notice where you are holding tension and then physically release it. Feel the difference.
I’m Obsessing over Life’s Issues
It’s difficult to unwind when your mind continuously rewinds over the day’s events. One thought leads to another. Suddenly, you are overanalyzing actions and conversations, considering how you “should have” handled them or fearful of how you will. Exercise allows the mind to enter a Zen-like state. The repetitive activity can help silent the constant thought stream flowing through your mind. If your thoughts aren’t quieted, they are probably redirected to the activity itself.
Changing your fitness routine regularly helps maximize your workout and keep your mind distracted from troubling issues. New activities require concentration on the task being accomplished. Clearing your mind during an exercise session allows a fresh perspective when you return to your contemplations.
As short-term relief against a stressful encounter and long-term enjoyment of a healthier lifestyle, exercise is recognized as therapeutic. In a world where some reach for a cigarette, a beer, or chocolate as a vice against stress, try a healthy alternative. Physical activity begets mental health. Free yourself from stress, one rep at a time.
“Build Inner Strength,” by Erica Rodefer at www.yogajournal.com.
“Exercise and Stress Relief: Using Exercise as a Stress Management Tool,” by Elizabeth Scott at www.stressabout.com.
“Exercise for Energy: Get More Out of Your Day,” by Elizabeth Scott at www.stressabout.com.
“Experts: Exercise Can Ease Anxiety,” by Kim Painter, Asbury Park Press, April 26, 2010.
“Positive Role of Stress,” reviewed by Harvard Medical School at www.aetnabehavioralhealth.com.
“Stay Grounded through Difficult Journeys,” by Erica Rodefer at www.yogajournal.com.
Erase stress (introduction photo): Photo courtesy of Alan Cleaver at www.flickr.com/photos/alancleaver/4331097922/