I’ve been thinking a lot about...
…stress and exercise.
Exercise makes people feel better. Among other things, it experientially and physiologically lowers our stress levels.
Peculiar thing about exercise: most of us know it’s good for us. And many of us exercise less than we plan to/would like to/feel we should. We tend to exercise most when motivation is high. And what increases motivation is different for everyone. For the majority, the benefits need to be valuable and meaningful. I’m going to assume you wouldn’t have read this far unless you were interested in reducing your stress to some extent. So, check that box.
For some, understanding why and how…or knowing the benefits are proven is motivating. So, to be brief, exercise creates both acute and long-term physiological adaptations that either counter stress or make the body more resilient to its pervasive effects. Physical activity has been shown to lower sympathetic nervous system activity, increase endorphins, and alter HPA axis activity. There’s recent evidence to also support that exercise supports neurogenesis.
Did you know that the simple act of elevating your heart rate through exercise on a regular basis can make you more tolerant to psychological stress?!?
Beyond the physiological mechanisms, exercise has also been shown to attenuate stress and anxiety through mechanisms including: improving concentration, distraction, socialization (here’s looking at you group fitness!), improved sleep, muscular relaxation, and improving self-esteem.
Okay, here are 7 quick (and hopefully useful) sound bites:
- Everything counts: It doesn’t have to be 60 minutes, and it doesn’t have to be super complicated or tough. A 15-minute brisk walk has been shown to be incredibly effective and, in fact, for some individuals, long, intense workouts are NOT conducive to lowering stress. Especially in the context of a long busy day, where trying to make time for a long gym workout simply stresses the person out!
- Moving meditation: Whether you prefer to run, do Yoga, or try Pilates, steady methodical breathing will increase oxygen flow to the brain, and quieting the mind often allows people to problem solve better. Return to the office with a new, positive perspective or a solution to a difficult problem.
- Distraction: An activity that is technically or physically really challenging will distract you from the stress. Boxing? Step Class? Compound Lifting? Any and all of these will do the trick! Consider it a moving “break,” if you will!
- Pleasure: The simple act of having fun, socializing, and connecting alleviates stress. The natural endorphins released during physical activity are jacked up even more for some when they are enjoying themselves. Get to one of our amazing Group Fitness Classes, head outside and PLAY with your kids, friends, and/or partner!
- Sleep: Lack of sleep is a HUGE stressor. People who get more than 150 minutes of physical activity a week tend to sleep longer and better. The tricky part: the what and when is different for different individuals. For the majority, exercising 30 to 90 minutes prior to sleep isn’t helpful at all, whereas many find 3 to 6 hours before bed is the perfect time to exercise in order to improve sleep. Some find exercise first thing in the morning does the trick; perhaps as it wakes them and they therefore decrease their caffeine intake throughout the day. Relaxing yoga is better for some, high intensity 30-minute strength workout for others, or a walk, run, or bike ride in the outdoors for others.
- Relax: Try progressive relaxation, whether in a Yoga or Stretch class, or simply on your own. Stressed bodies hold excessive muscular tension. Learn to allow that tension to dissipate… from your eyebrows… to your shoulders… to your toes… Ahhhh…
- Self Esteem: Sometimes our challenges overwhelm us. For me, there is nothing like mastering a super heavy deadlift, finishing a grueling run, or nailing a HIIT workout that makes me feel like I can do ANYTHING. I feel strong, powerful, able: to tackle that stress down to the ground.
I hope there’s something in that list that can help you. It’s your journey – not anyone else’s – do what works best for you. Just remember that we’re always here to help, however you need it. Need a little extra motivation? Schedule a session with a trainer. Can’t seem to relax? Join one of our Yoga or Stretch classes. And if you’re struggling with a specific challenge? Reach out!
Meg Sharp, MSc., B.Ed.Kin, FST, Executive Director of Personal Training, Cambridge Group of Clubs