Stress is a part of everyone’s life. The “experts” tell us that some stress is good because without it there would be no motivation to do anything! However, if you are like me, serious stress and anxiety makes me feel bad physically – I am unable to eat and sleep. This can’t be good!
For most of us, stress is low-level most of the time. Our daily tasks and relationships give us a bit of stress but not major anxiety. The body’s response to low-level stressors is designed to motivate us to action with a slightly raised heart rate and increased mental clarity –similar to the response to caffeine.
Exercise and other physical activity produce endorphins—chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers—and also improve the ability to sleep, which in turn reduces stress.
In times where stress levels go higher, the responses are what many people call the “fight or flight” response. The body sends blood to the extremities to get ready for action! These responses are normal and good for you – except when the stress levels remain high for a long time. When the body perpetually stays in a stressed state, the systems begin to break down. Think of it like a car engine where the throttle is stuck and the engine is constantly “revved up”. Not only will it consume A LOT of gasoline, but the mechanical parts will wear out faster.
So what to do to protect ourselves from this? RELAX of course….and EXERCISE. Exercise helps us relax both physiologically and, if it’s enjoyable, provides a mental escape from the stressor. The physiological effects of exercise include release of morphine-like chemicals (which include beta-endorphins) that give us a sense of well being. Have you ever heard the term Runner’s High? This is caused by the release of “endorphins” into the blood. Since these chemicals stay in the blood for several hours after stopping the activity, the “feel good” feeling remains for a while.
OK, so we know why exercise can help with anxiety and stress. But what are some of the ways regular exercise keeps us healthy in normal, low-level stress, times?
Here’s some from the top of my head:
- Using a daily dose of natural “feel good” chemicals is better than drugs or alcohol!!
- Looking fit, healthy and strong (It’s ok to admit that looking good makes you feel good!)
- Feeling good from accomplishment and improvement.
- Escaping from the daily grind for an hour – change of scene.
- Keeping the body systems prepared to handle high-level stress.
The key to lowering stress with exercise is that you ENJOY the exercise that you choose to do. If you hate going to the gym, it’s not going to lower your stress – in fact it probably will add some! Also, studies are showing over and over that even low intensity exercise helps anxiety, so any activity you enjoy is good. For me, when I am under stress, nothing works better than a good sweaty dance session. The music, movement and high heart rate just melt away my troubles. Some of my clients even tell me that the sense of achievement from competitive sports makes them feel less stressed!
The bottom line? To decrease the effects stress on your body, pick a fitness or sports activity you enjoy, do it regularly and HAVE FUN.