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Exercise – The Ultimate Stress Buster

Lee Ashford

It is an unfortunate fact of life that most of us experience stress on a daily basis. The rigours and strains of modern living combined with a high profile career and the daunting task of parenthood can leave even the calmest, laid-back individual wanting to climb the walls and pull out their hair by the handful. Mounting pressures at work to meet deadlines, piles of housework in an environment surrounded by demanding children and relationship woes are daily problems facing most adults in today’s society.

Anything that causes stress is called a stressor. The most common stressors are work, relationship or family related. Stress is experienced when there is an awareness of an imbalance between demand and capability, under conditions where failure to meet the demand is thought to have unwanted consequences. Stress can be positive and negative. On the positive side it alerts us to a threat and increases our levels of arousal and activation. This can help us be more effective in coping with the threat. Mismanaged stress causes strain on its victim which in turn can be devastating.

Many would agree with the statement – “stress can be harmful to your health”. When handled inappropriately, stress lowers our resistance to illness and disease. Serious physical and emotional problems can arise, and in a worse case scenario, even lead to loss of life. Physiological symptoms of stress include: increased heart rate, high blood pressure, insomnia, headaches, diabetes and fatigue. These health related symptoms can trigger off emotional problems, such as depression, anxiety, anger and withdrawal.

So, how does one manage stress and stay healthy and happy? Answer – exercise! Exercise is important to each and every one of us, regardless of age or ability. There are, of course, the physical, emotional and visual improvements gained through regular and effective exercise. Weight loss, muscle tone, increased self esteem, improved cardiovascular system, improved posture and change of body shape are to name but a few.

Exercise is also beneficial for stress reduction through the release of endorphins. Endorphins or “happy hormones” can make us feel energised, recharged and revitalised. These chemicals are increased during physical activity of twenty minutes or more. Chemically similar to opiate compounds, endorphins are a similar substance to morphine. They have been shown to provide a pain relieving effect and promote a sense of euphoria. Sleep patterns can improve and blood pressure can even be reduced by the release of these hormones.

What types of exercise are recommended for stress relief? It is important to find an exercise which is enjoyable and easy to commit to on a regular basis. Repetitive exercises, such as walking, running, cycling and swimming can promote a relaxing sensation for some individuals, giving an effect similar to meditation. Some people enjoy gradual and fluent movements, focusing on breathing, stretching and posture. Examples, such as yoga and tai chi can be more beneficial than regular exercise. Stretching relaxes tense muscles and improves flexibility and joint efficiency.

Activities should be fun and varied in order to sustain a suitable level of interest and to reduce the boredom factor. Slogging tediously away for hours on end enduring mind numbingly boring exercises can destroy one’s desire to participate, subsequently increasing stress levels. Remember exercises you enjoyed as a child. The chances are that you will still like them. Group activities, such as fitness classes, team sports and dance classes are just a few of the possibilities.

Contact sports, such as boxing, kick boxing and martial arts are for many people, the most satisfying and rewarding ways to relieve tension. Banging away on a punch bag or exploding with a crisp left hook with precision and power towards an unsuspecting trainer’s focus pad can help relieve the built up stress of a hard day’s work. These sports are not all about sparing and getting a bloody nose, thick lip and cauliflower ear. Training sessions can be taken in a class format, allowing you to enjoy the session without risking injury to yourself.

The fact that the stressor may inhibit physical activity should not be a reason not to participate. Commitments to family or work may reduce the time allowed, so making small changes to your daily routine may help you dedicate more time to exercise. Some health clubs offer childcare. Lunch breaks at work can be used productively. Even a half-an-hour break can be efficient time with which to enjoy the stress relieving benefits exercise has to offer.

Exercise frequency and duration can depend on personal goals. Moderate activity for at least twenty minutes three times a week is the minimum requirement, according to physicians. Training once a week is probably insufficient to achieve any noticeable changes. Rest days should be incorporated into intense and advanced training schedules. Overtraining can give negative results. Overuse injuries will hamper training schedules, causing frustration and further stress. Addictions to exercise on a daily basis, although considered by some to be a positive addiction, can in fact create problems through withdrawal effects. Not getting your daily fix of endorphins may contribute to increases in hostility, anxiety and depression.

Everyone experiences stress at some point in time. You can either manage and control it or face the consequences. Exercise is a healthy, enjoyable and rewarding way to combat the effects of stress when used safely, effectively and within one’s capabilities. Let stress become a thing of the past – not yourself!

Here are my top ten stress busting exercise tips:

1) Go for a walk. Available to most of us walking suits all fitness levels, is low impact and will burn calories.

2) Take a dip. Swimming is a non-impact exercise and works virtually every muscle and joint. Rhythmical movements can provide a meditating effect.

3) Join a yoga class. With endless physiological and psychological benefits, yoga can seriously improve your health and well-being. Calming the mind and enabling us to handle anxiety and stress, yoga is second to none. This exercise is suitable for all fitness levels – from the beginner to the advanced athlete.

4) Keep it regular. People who exercise regularly tend to be more conscious of their diet, encouraging them to eat more nutritious food. Good nutrition helps stress management and increases energy levels.

5) Find a partner. Training in pairs helps motivation and encouragement when the going gets tough. Exercising on your own can feel very lonesome. This is especially noticeable when running or working out at the gym.

6) Try something new. Taking part in a new sport or activity such as badminton or salsa classes can be a refreshing change. Making new social contacts will also help your self esteem.

7) Know your limitations. Don’t throw yourself in at the deep end when you are new to a particular activity. You should start off gently, progressing gradually as fitness levels start to increase. It is also just as important to progress to the next level once an activity gets too easy. A plateau in your regime will not be beneficial to stress reduction.

8) Keep yourself sexually active. Involving sexual activity within your physical activity will aid the release of muscular and emotional tension whilst burning off extra calories.

9) Separate yourself from work. Choose an activity that’s away from work and home. A physical job or active home life may burn off calories but will do little to lower stress levels.

10) Seek advice from a professional. Incorrect technique and form may contribute to injury. Bouts of inactivity on the sidelines do not contribute to stress reduction. Advice usually costs nothing. Don’t be afraid to ask.

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