Health Beat: Dealing with holiday stress through exercise

Published 2:35 pm Friday, December 9, 2016

Unfortunately, each year we have a “slow season” in the fitness industry. A nearly empty gym in December is not unusual, only the hardcore fitness enthusiasts maintain their exercise habits during this busy time. Demands on our time, energy and attention spiral out of control during this special time of year, and for many of us, exercise is the first thing to go. I would like to convince you, however, that exercise ought to remain on the top of your to-do list throughout the holidays. Here’s why:

  • Most of us would admit to being somewhat stressed during the holiday season. For others, anxiety and depression can be quite serious when our reality doesn’t match our expectations for the holidays. Finances are a challenge and relationships can be put to the test. Loneliness is often amplified. Whether your stress is mild or severe, exercise can alleviate a great deal of it.
  • When we are stressed or anxious, our bodies overproduce two particularly harmful hormones: cortisol and norepinephrine. Although both of these hormones are essential for fuel regulation and other vital physiologic and psychologic processes, an overproduction of them can be harmful. Chronic overproduction of cortisol can lead to abdominal fat build up which leads to increased likelihood of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. Overproduction of norepinephrine can lead to high blood pressure and heightened levels of anxiety.
  • Exercise burns up or metabolizes these hormones, thus lowering the levels and the subsequent harmful effects. In addition, exercise stimulates the production of endorphins. These “feel good” transmitters elevate your mood and induce feelings of serenity and safety. The more intense the workout, the better you feel afterward. This feeling of well-being is what keeps most of us coming back to the gym year after year. Many studies show that exercise is equally as effective in the treatment of anxiety and depression as the most commonly prescribed medications!

In addition, exercise is a distraction from your worries. It is an outlet for anger. It will help you maintain your weight through the holiday. It will help you sleep more soundly at night. It will improve your appearance. It will improve your memory and your ability to focus. It will increase your energy level — sorry, sometimes I get carried away!

So, how do we fit exercise into this crazy holiday schedule? First and foremost, try to exercise early in the day. The earlier you get it in, the less chance you have of something else “coming up” and monopolizing your time. Consider enlisting the help of a buddy to walk in the early morning hours; you can hold each other accountable. If necessary, break up your exercise time, taking two or three short walks per day. Try taking 15 minutes off your lunch break for a brisk walk. And finally, find something you enjoy — exercise shouldn’t be miserable! Remember, 30 minutes five days per week is all you need to make a big difference. If you need to watch TV or listen to music to make the time go by faster, do it.

I challenge you this holiday season to exercise when you are the busiest and most stressed. You will reap the greatest benefit during this trying time. Like many things in life, a little discipline goes a long way. You will experience a more relaxed and meaningful holiday when you give your body the attention it deserves.

Judy Van Dorp, RN, is an ACSM exercise specialist and can be reached at the Vidant Wellness Center at 252-975-4236.