Just walk away from all that stress

Published 9:28 pm Saturday, June 15, 2013

By Jennifer Weatherly

We’ve all experienced that out of control, overloaded feeling called stress. Have you ever felt like your heart was pounding or your palms were sweaty? Both of these are examples of how stress affects both the body and the mind. Eons ago, our ancient ancestors used this automatic response to protect themselves from predators. Nowadays, we aren’t likely to be eaten, but we are challenged in other ways such as meeting deadlines, paying bills, dealing with family obligations, being stuck in traffic — you get the idea. Either way, the body and mind respond in the same way—it’s called the “fight or flight” response. When faced with a challenge or a perceived threat, your body reacts to protect you by helping you get away as fast as you can, or giving you extra strength to overcome the challenge. Actually, your mind reacts and causes the body to produce chemicals that increase alertness. At the same time, nonessential body functions, like immunity and digestion are suppressed. These are good and protective responses, but when they get stuck in the “on” position, they can have serious health consequences. Cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, depression, anxiety, immune system suppression, headaches, back and neck pain and sleep problems are some of the conditions associated with stress. These conditions are some of the most burdensome health problems in the U.S. based on health-care costs, the number of people affected and the impact on lives.
Of course, avoiding all stressors would be ideal, but let’s get real, that’s not going to happen. So, let’s talk about what we can do to manage stress. We all know the benefits of exercise for staying physically healthy, but it is also one of the best stress reduction methods known. Any form of exercise can help you relieve stress, and you don’t have to be an athlete to make exercise work for you.
What are the benefits of exercise in regard to stress reduction?
Exercise increases neurotransmitters called endorphins. These nice brain chemicals make you feel good. You may have heard of a “runner’s high.” That’s what they are referring to, but just taking your dog for a long walk will produce the same brain effect.
Exercise is definitely a mood enhancer. When you are feeling overwhelmed, take a break and take a walk. Exercise gives you back a sense of self-control and command over your body and mind.
Exercises’ rhythmic effect can be used as a form of meditation. Listening to the sound of your feet as they hit the pavement or your breath as you cycle will melt away the stress and the day’s irritations. Concentrating on your body’s movements and natural rhythms can bring clarity, energy and optimism back to you.
If you’re not an exerciser, you can start gradually and make it work for you. Consult with your doctor if you don’t currently have an exercise program. (I haven’t met a doctor yet who didn’t like their patients exercising.) Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day. So, start slowly and grow your habit. Try to get at least 150 minutes a week of moderate activity, like walking. That breaks down to a 30-minute-a-day walk — easily manageable. Any kind of movement will help you get more fit, but if you have a fun factor included in your daily activity, the enjoyment level goes up while stress levels go down. Make exercise the most important appointment you have all day. For your physical and mental health, don’t let anything be a deal breaker for you. Carve out some time for yourself everyday. Getting started is the first step, sticking with it is the process. Set some goals for yourself — make them attainable, specific and measureable. Find a friend to share the process with you. The buddy system is a way to build in some accountability and add some more enjoyment to your stress/health breaks. Don’t forget to have a variety of exercise modes to keep it interesting. Consider taking a yoga class or an aquatic exercise class or lap swim if you need to mix it up. Don’t get bored by doing the same old routine — it will become tiresome. Keep your exercise time fresh, fun and relaxing.
We all live with a certain amount of garden variety stress. It’s just a part of our modern lifestyle. We carry our phones around with us and therefore, are always ‘on call.’ Avoid the stress you can, reduce the stress you have control over (hide your phone) and play or exercise to stay healthy — physically and mentally.
Jennifer Weatherly, CLC, EX.Spec.(c), is the group exercise coordinator at the Vidant Wellness Center in Washington, and may be reached at 252-975-4236.