Did you know that an estimated 80 percent of disease is stress related? That’s right. Conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, asthma, stomach ulcers, insomnia, migraine headaches, eating disorders, some forms of cancer, low back pain, and even the common cold are all stress related. Did you also know that most of the people who are in the beginning stages of these diseases aren’t even aware of the level of stress they are under every day? Most of us are running so fast and furious all day long or are simply preoccupied with other issues that we rarely take the time to pay attention to our own state of health.
If you are one of these people, then listen up! There is something you can do to reduce the amount of stress in your life, and at the same time improve your productivity at work as well as your overall health and sense of well-being. Well you have probably already guessed it – it’s exercise. So if you did know the answer, why aren’t you already doing it on a regular basis? Let me guess: “there is not enough time in the day”, or “the last time I exercised, I was sore for a week”, “I can’t get motivated”, or “I would rather enjoy life than live forever.”
These are all very legitimate excuses. However, they are just that – excuses. They are also matters of lack of awareness and mismanaged priorities. Let’s first address the awareness issue with a look at the physiological effects that exercise has on the mind, body, and spirit.
First of all, let’s clarify what exercise really is. It is a controlled form of stress. Some of us become instantly more stressed at the mere mention of the word “exercise”. We may even feel like our bodies are undergoing increased stress when we begin to ride a stationary bike or lift weights. This is all okay. When we exercise, we are putting our bodies through a controlled level of stress for a relatively short period of time so that it is better able to handle the longer periods of uncontrolled or unmanaged stress that we undergo on a daily basis.
Physiologically speaking, exercise increases blood flow to the brain, releasing hormones, stimulating the nervous system, and raising levels of morphine-like substances called endorphins. In fact, these endorphins are about 200 times more potent than morphine and they are totally legal without a prescription. More intense exercise is also a natural release for the body’s adrenal glands. During prolonged periods of unmanaged stress, our adrenal glands produce excess levels of adrenaline, which can leave one feeling “burned out” or fatigued. Exercise can help you to work off the adrenaline overload and return your body to its pre-stress state.
Typically, we associate the health benefits of exercise with cardiovascular or aerobic exercise. However, there are also a number of health benefits attributed to resistance and flexibility based exercise. Resistance (strength) training increases lean muscle tissue, which in turn raises the body’s resting metabolic rate – the rate at which we burn calories and fat at rest. This can result in an additional 200 to 300 calories burned off per day. This residual loss of body fat can have a profound impact on one’s self-esteem, mood and consequently, one’s level of stress. By targeting certain musculature in the back area, resistance training can also improve posture and the way you hold yourself. Flexibility training such as stretching and deep breathing exercises can promote circulation and relieve tense muscles. Since we hold so much of our stress in our neck and shoulders, regular stretching of the muscles in this area can have profound and relaxing affects.
By far the most popular excuse for failing to exercise is not having enough time. The question is are you really so busy that it’s impossible to find three to five hours per week to exercise? Or is it more likely that your time gets spent on things that aren’t at the top of your list of priorities?
If you frequently use time as an excuse for not exercising, do the following simple “exercise” to see if your excuse is really valid.
First, get a piece of paper and a pen or pencil and make a list of the top five things that are most important to you, with 1 being the most important. Think in terms of your overall life and what you love the most. Be sure to write these down because this exercise will not have the same impact if you are just going through these items in your head.
Next, list the top five ways you currently spend your time, with 1 being the activity you spend the most time on. Be honest. You can probably see where this is going.
Finally, compare List #1 with List #2. Do you devote the majority of your time to what matters the most to you? Or do you find yourself using precious time on items that really don’t mean that much? If your two lists don’t quite match up, it’s time to get your priorities in line.
Do you work long hours yet place family as your number one priority? How many hours per day do you spend watching TV or reading the newspaper? This could be considered time wasted and better spent reducing your stress and improving your health through exercise. It only takes three to five hours per week to maintain your health and your sanity. How important is it to you?
If motivation is your reason for not getting started and the above exercise was not enough to get you going, than make your exercise time more enjoyable by sharing it with a friend. Go on a walk or to the health club with someone you have been wanting to spend more time with. If you are someone who does not care for the health club environment, you could take up an activity like rowing or biking or even Tai Chi. If you are now ready to exercise but aren’t sure how to get started, start by getting a complete physical from your physician. Once you receive medical clearance, make an appointment with a certified personal fitness trainer. There are many in the area listed under “Health & Fitness Program Consultants” in the Yellow Pages. You should use the same level of scrutiny in hiring a fitness trainer as you would in hiring an employee. After all, you are basically trusting this person with your physical well-being. Be sure to ask the trainer about their qualifications and experience so that you are confident in their abilities. Most importantly, the trainer should conduct a full health history and physical assessment before prescribing any form of exercise. No exercise program would be complete or even effective without maintaining a reasonably healthy diet. This does not mean counting calories. That will likely cause more stress. In a nutshell, a healthy diet is one that is devoid of refined sugars and processed grains, such as pastas and breads. Stick to whole grains, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and plenty of protein. This will ensure optimal energy levels and results from your exercise program.
Some other things that have proven helpful in reducing stress are herbal remedies (such as kava kava, valerian root, passion flower, and chamomile), meditation and other forms of deep breathing exercises, acupuncture, massage, and magnetic therapy.