How to reduce stress through exercise
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Many people find it difficult to disconnect these days. Inflation, global warming and gun violence are on the rise. Bullies are on the rise on social media. The 24/7 news cycle constantly delivers distressing news and people often face difficult personal or professional situations.
About half of Americans said they felt stressed in the past day, according to a Gallup poll from last October, a finding that was consistent for most of 2022. Personal finances and current and political events were major sources of stress for a third or more of adults, a CNN survey in partnership with the Kaiser Family Foundation found in October.
Stress isn’t inherently bad, said Richard Scrivener, personal trainer and product development manager at Trainfitness in London, an education technology company. Stress your muscles through bodybuilding, for example, leads to beneficial changes. Also, short-term stress in healthy people is usually not a danger. “But if the stress is ongoing, especially in older or unhealthy people, the long-term effects of the stress response can lead to significant health issues,” Scrivener said.
Stress occurs when you face a new, unpredictable or threatening situation, and you don’t know if you can handle it successfully, said clinical psychologist Dr. Karmel Choi, assistant professor at the Center for Precision Psychiatry at Harvard Medical. School and Massachusetts General. Boston Hospital.
When you are physically or emotionally stressed, your body goes into fight or flight mode. Cortisol rushes through your system, signaling your body to release glucose. Glucose, in turn, provides your muscles with energy so you’re better prepared to fight off a threat or run away. During this cortisol surge, your heart rate may increase, your breathing may become rapid, and you may feel lightheaded or nauseous.
If you really needed to fight or flee from a predator, your cortisol levels would drop once the conflict was over. However, when you are chronically stressed, these levels remain high.
Staying in this heightened state isn’t good because high cortisol levels can worsen health conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and chronic gastrointestinal issues, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Stress can also cause or contribute to anxiety, irritability, lack of sleep, substance abuse, suspiciousness or chronic worry, etc.
Fortunately, there are many ways to combat stress. Keep a daily routine, get plenty of sleep, eat healthy foods, and limit your time following the news or engaging in social media, recommends the World Health Organization. It also helps to stay in touch with others and to use calming practices such as meditation and deep breathing. However, physical activity is one of the most effective tools.
“Exercise is remarkably effective at managing psychological stress,” Choi said. “Exercise doesn’t remove what causes stress, but it can boost mood, reduce tension and improve sleep – all of which are affected by stress – and ultimately it can help people approach their challenges in a more more balanced.”
Numerous studies confirm the positive effect of exercise on stress. Physical activity, especially exercise, significantly reduces anxiety symptoms in a study published in Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, for example. Likewise, a Frontiers in Psychology Study of college students found that regularly engaging in low-to-moderate intensity activities aerobic exercises for six weeks helped alleviate their depressive symptoms and perceived stress.
The reason exercise is so effective in stress crushing is quite simple. Exercise causes your body to produce more endorphins, which are neurotransmitters that boost your mood. The movement also combats high levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, while improving blood circulation.
Jessica Honig, a clinical social worker in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, said exercise empowers her clients because they realize that through movement they hold the key to resetting and reducing their stress. “It’s also one of the best ways to take a break — to break up or rekindle the energy of a spiraling, unproductive state of mind,” she said.
What types of exercises are the best? Although studies show that aerobic exercise, such as swimming, running, dancing, and boxing, may be the most effective at pushing mood-boosting endorphins through your body, milder forms of activity physics also work. Think yoga, strength training, and walking. Plus, sometimes less is more.
“What we see from the data,” Choi said, “is that you actually have to move less than the recommended guidelines to see positive effects on mood.”
Since stress loads can change weekly or even daily, Scrivener said it can be helpful to tweak your exercise based on your mood. Do you smell a happy 8 on a scale of 1 to 10? Then go for a run. Barely hitting a 3? Go for something sweet. “It could be a 15 minute stretch followed by a 15 minute light cycle, or a 30 minute swim followed by a sauna session,” he said.
Since social engagement is a powerful protective factor for positive mental health, Choi encourages exercising with others. Studies have also shown to be in nature Boosts your mood, so exercising outside with friends can provide even more benefits.
Scientists continue to study the link between stress and physical activity. A small study published recently found that the combination of mindfulness and physical activity can improve sleep and help regulate emotions more than either alone, Choi said. She also warned that people should be careful not to overdo exercise or rely on it exclusively to cope with challenges. This can backfire and create more stress.
It’s also important to remember that humans are designed to release stress physically, regardless of age, said Honig, the social worker. “We see permission in children to throw their bodies into pillows to release intense emotions,” she said. “We don’t get over the need to physically release stress. We simply lose the outlets and the social normalization.
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