How does physical activity counter stress? Let me count the ways

Posted May 02, 2011, at 3:37 p.m.

We all have stress in our lives to one degree or another. Perhaps you are feeling the pressure due to the state of our economy? Maybe you are not sleeping well because you are worried about that big project that is due tomorrow? Family issues such as a nagging spouse, arguing children or a visit from the in-laws may all cause personal stress. How we choose to deal with our stress may significantly impact our health.

If we don’t cultivate healthy ways to deal with stress, physical consequences may develop. In a recent survey from the American Psychological Association, two-fifths of adults reported overeating or eating unhealthful diets because of stress. Nearly one-third said they skipped meals and more than four in 10 said they had lain awake at night because of stress. The most common physical symptoms of stress reported were irritability, fatigue and lack of motivation.

On the other hand, being physically active, whether taking a walk, gardening, going for a bicycle ride or some other activity you enjoy, is a positive way to help manage your stress and build good health.

Physical activity promotes stress reduction in a number of ways. For one thing, it triggers the production of feel-good neurotransmitters called endorphins. Manufactured primarily in the brain, endorphins help reduce the perception of pain. Perhaps you have heard of the “runner’s high”? After a bout of physical activity, that positive feeling and energy you experience may be due to the release of endorphins. If you find your good intentions flagging, remind yourself of how good you felt after your last physical activity. And though it may be hard to get started, you know the end result will be worth it!

Giving yourself a physical “time-out” from your stressful situation can go a long way to help you collect your thoughts. Have you ever noticed the amount of brainstorming you do when you are on one of your walks? If you are having a particularly stressful day at home or at work, try taking the time to go for a walk to clear your mind and develop a game plan for managing your day. You will reap the benefits of being physically active while taking control of your stress, allowing you to be more productive and efficient with your work.

Meditation is another great way to manage stress. Many of us may think of the classic forms of meditation such as focusing on breathing or employing a mantra to concentrate. However, repetitive movements such as walking, running, swimming or dancing — anything that incorporates bodily repetition — also may help bring a meditative sense of calm and concentration.

Another benefit of physical activity is sleep improvement. Adequate sleep is necessary for healthy functioning. But when you are stressed, your sleep patterns may be disrupted. You may find yourself tossing and turning, waking up to think about  problems and revisiting the same events and conversations over and over again. Building physical exercise into your daily routine can help promote a good night’s sleep. Sleep experts recommend exercising in the late afternoon, if possible, in order to allow the body time to settle down before bedtime.

When you feel good about yourself, you are better equipped to handle stress. Being physically active on a regular basis enhances feelings of self-worth and builds your “can do” attitude.

We will never be able to fully escape stress or stressful situations. But through a conscious decision to build up your positive coping mechanisms you will be much more able to handle situations as they develop. Making physical activity a regular part of your day will give you a significant advantage during stressful situations.

Nicole Hammar coordinates the Move and Improve fitness program for Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems in Brewer.

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