We all experience stress in our lives every day, whether it is the stress of driving in traffic, keeping up with the bills, being at work or taking care of your children. There is evidence that stress damages your health. It can weaken your immune system, increase your risk of heart problems, raise cholesterol, keep your blood sugar too high and cause weight and skin problems.
Exercising on a daily basis strengthens your physical health. It has been proven to burn fat, improve your cardiovascular system, bring in more oxygen, reduce the chance of disease and lower your blood pressure. But these are not the only benefits.
Exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol.
By exercising regularly, you handle stress by:
• Thinking clearly. It improves blood flow to your brain, bringing additional sugars and oxygen that may be needed when you are thinking intensely. When you think hard, the neurons of your brain function more intensely. As they do this, they can build up toxic waste products that can cause foggy thinking. By exercising, you speed the flow of blood through your brain, moving these waste products faster.
• Improving your mood. Exercise helps to bump up the production of your body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators, called endorphins. Although this function is often referred to as a runner’s high, a rousing game of tennis, cross-country skiing or a nature hike also can contribute to this same feeling. Regular exercise can increase self-confidence and lower the symptoms associated with mild depression and anxiety.
• Relaxing your body and mind. After a fast-paced game of racquetball or several laps in the pool, you’ll often find that you’ve forgotten the day’s irritations and concentrated only on your body’s movements. You begin to shed your daily tensions and relax both your body and your mind.
• Improving your sleep. Your sleep is often disrupted by stress, depression and anxiety. Exercising regularly can boost your energy level during the day and improve your sleep at night. Sleeping well will ease your stress levels and give you a sense of control over your body and your life.
• Protecting you from burnout. There is also evidence that physically fit people have less extreme physiological responses when under pressure than those who are not. This means that fit people are more able to handle the long-term effects of stress without suffering ill health or burnout.
What types of exercise reduces stress?
It depends on you — what is important is that you enjoy and commit to exercising regularly.
Some suggestions that may interest you:
• Rhythmic exercises. For many, repeating the same motion for a period of time has a relaxing effect similar to meditation. Rhythmic exercises that can provide this effect include swimming laps, walking, running, cycling or spinning and using the elliptical at the gym.
• Breathing and fluid movement. Some people enjoy exercises that focus on breathing and fluid movement, such as yoga, Pilates, and tai chi.
• Exercise with a friend. Exercising in pairs by playing golf, going to the gym to workout together or attending Zumba and other types of fitness classes helps make it a social gathering and holds you accountable to someone else.
Exercising gives you a little time to yourself, away from your responsibilities and the constant demands upon you. It is like having recess — remember the good old grade school days? We all need to stretch our muscles, get our heart pumping and get some fresh air. It gives you solo time away from work, kids and the daily grind, helping you get your head back in order.
Remember to keep it varied to keep you interested, so mix it up. Take a fencing class or cardiovascular kickboxing class for a couple of weeks, and then when the weather is cooperating, go for a nature hike or put on your snowshoes and trek around your neighborhood.
Most importantly, schedule it in your smartphone and put it on your calendar and keep it regular.
Make it a priority in your life. You won’t regret it and your overall stress will be reduced and you will be looking and feeling great.
Katie O. Hilo is a physical therapist who works at Results Physical Therapy and Wellness Center in Brewer. She specializes in pediatrics, is a speaker on Stress and Exercise and runs the wellness program at Results. She can be reached at 992-4042.