Combating stress with movement

[singlepic id=168 w=320 h=240 mode=web20 float=right]By Tara Taylor

How do you handle stress? By overeating/drinking, sleeping, exercise? According to many studies, the best way to cope with our stressful world is through physical activity.

For the past 17 years, April has been given the distinctive honor of being “Stress Awareness Month.” For April, doctors and health and fitness professionals are teaming together to increase public awareness of how to prevent, handle, and cope with stress. The Health Resource Network (a nonprofit health education organization), sponsors Stress Awareness Month as well as National Stress Awareness Day, April 16th—or the day after income taxes are due! In honor of this “awareness,” why not give the exercise thing a shot for a month? After these 30 days, see if your stress coping doesn’t become a bit easier.

Merriam Webster defines stress as “a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation.” In other words, it is a factor that may cause disease. Our brains come hardwired with an automatic reaction to stressful situations (mental or physical). This reaction causes the release of hormones to initiate the “fight-or-flight” response. The main issue with mental stress is that our body reacts the same way with these fight-or-flight hormones as it would to a physical threat. Without a way to release these hormones, your body is always on red alert. Over time, that level of stress leads to serious health problems, including heart disease, sleep disorders, obesity, depression, loss of memory, and digestive problems to name a few.

Learning to manage stress is crucial because it helps the brain “reset” after this release of hormones. The Mayo Clinic suggests exercise, relaxation techniques, fostering healthy friendships, and getting plenty of sleep as stress management strategies. Exercise (or any type of physical activity) ranks the highest when it comes to your body’s ability to cope with stress.

Why does exercise play such an important role in stress management? Physical activity triggers the release of the “happy hormones” (aka, endorphins) in our bodies. The release of these hormones not only relieves stress, it also helps with our ability to endure pain. Below are a few key steps to creating and sticking with an exercise program:

•   Consult with your doctor. Especially if you have a history of heart disease or other risk factors.

•   Walk before you run. Build up your fitness level gradually. Excitement about a new program can lead to overdoing it and possibly even injury. Plus, if you begin your program slowly, chances are better that you’ll stick with it.

•   Do what you love. Don’t train for a marathon if you dislike running. All forms of movement can increase your fitness level while decreasing your stress. The most important thing is to pick an activity that you enjoy.

•   Pick a time and stick to it. Carving out some time to move every day helps you make your exercise program an ongoing priority.

•   Set some goals. It’s always a good idea to begin or modify a workout program with a goal in mind. If your primary goal is to reduce stress in your life and recharge your batteries, your specific goals might include committing to walking during your lunch hour three times a week or, if needed, finding a baby sitter to watch your children so that you can slip away to attend a class.

•   Find a friend. Knowing that someone is waiting for you to show up at the gym or the park can be a powerful incentive. Working out with a friend, coworker, or family member often brings a new level of motivation to your workouts.

•   Change up your routine. If you’ve always been a competitive runner, take a look at other less-competitive options that may help with stress reduction, such as Pilates classes or yoga. As an added bonus, these kinder, gentler workouts may enhance your running while also decreasing your stress.

Don’t just take my word for it, Jill Kauker, a loyal Inbalance Fitness class participant uses group exercise to mange stress: “I couldn’t do my job if it weren’t for step class. I need three days a week of cardio or I just wouldn’t feel right…going to the classes at night during the work week forces me to leave work at a decent hour which I might not do otherwise. Inbalance Group Fitness is a life saver.”

Basically, exercise = less stress. Make sure that whatever activity you choose is something that you enjoy. Any sort of physical activity, from attending your favorite class at Inbalance Fitness to a stroll around the block, can help you unwind and combat the stress from your day.

For more information about Stress Awareness Month and stress management techniques, visit the Health Resource Network’s website at TheStressCure.com or the Mayo Clinic website at MayoClinic.com. To find out more ways to incorporate exercise into your daily life, visit Inbalance Fitness on the web at inbalancefitness.com.

Tara Taylor is an Inbalance Fitness group fitness director and certified personal trainer.

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