“The first wealth is health.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson
Which do you think to be more effective at reducing anxiety or stress: Taking a hot bath or going for a brisk 20 minute walk? The answer is going for a walk (1). Our bodies are repositories for stress and anxiety; in fact, we experience stress/anxiety physically first, before the mind is aware of what is happening. By connecting to our physical being, particularly through exercise, we can do much to both prevent and deal with stress and anxiety, and gain a significant a boost in quality of life.
Your physical body’s reaction to stress is a survival response. Worry and anxiety are meant to get your attention so you survive the encounter with Ursus horriblus. But these same survival mechanisms do not distinguish between a sharp toothed predator and a disagreement with your partner, a bad day at work, or a concern about income taxes, and can be counterproductive. You cannot ignore how your brain and body work, but you can make choices about how to manage your stress. Consider how animals respond: A rabbit caught by an eagle and dropped will sit still for a moment, begin kicking its legs, and will finally dart around before taking off. This movement is the physical release of stress stored in the body during intense experience. The lesson here is that stress has a physical component. Exercise provides outlets for accumulated stress, raises your tolerance levels, and can even influence future generations.
“Character is destiny,” Heraclitus said. For many years it was believed genes too were destiny, but it seems this is not quite true. Scientists are just beginning to understand how lifestyle choices affect the way specific genes turn on or off (called “gene activation”). A Swedish study has shown that exercise creates immediate shifts for the better in genetic material (1). Walking an hour a day can drastically reduce the genetic tendency to be obese, for example (1). If you have a family history of anxiety, there is much you can do to influence how you respond, and this can even change your genetic make-up. An active, healthy lifestyle also affects which gene combinations are passed on to future generations (1).
Benefits of Exercise:
- Improved Productivity: With work and family obligations you may not feel you have time to exercise. However, exercise increases the quality of your time and makes it more likely that you will complete needed tasks. A Swedish study found that taking exercise breaks at work leads to improved productivity (1). The same applies to your personal life.
- Better Sleep: Sleep is an important tool in dealing with anxiety and stress, and regular exercise can help you sleep better. When you lie down at night, anxiety thoughts can increase, making it hard to sleep. The resulting lack of sleep makes you more susceptible to further stress, and a vicious cycle is born. Exercise improves the body’s ability to shut down anxious thoughts and help you get to sleep.
- Better Appetite: Anxiety often decreases appetite or leads to poor food choices; exercise counteracts this, stimulating your appetite, and helps you fuel your system in healthy ways, making it easier to deal with stressors. Planning in advance, you can have healthy food choices ready to go—yoghurt, bananas, or fruit snacks. And healthy eating habits influence your mood.
- Better Immunity: People who exercise regularly are healthier. One study found that regular exercisers have at least 30 percent less respiratory infections (1). Natural release of serotonin through exercise also serves as a protection against mental illness (2).
- Better Mood: Exercise stimulates the release of endorphins, natural pain-killers (as in a runner’s high or the energy boost felt a day or two after a good cardiovascular workout.). Dopamine and serotonin are also released. Serotonin release is what anti-depressants and anxiety medications attempt to do, but exercise can do this more efficiently. The natural boost of these feel-good chemicals contributes to better mood and self-esteem, giving you a tangible increase in energy that helps you complete stressful tasks with greater ease. Exercise is also an important tool in managing depression.
Although going to the gym after work can help alleviate anxiety and resets your stress-tolerance levels, it does not undo the damage done during the day. Finding ways of being active throughout your day, combined with regular exercise, is the best approach to physically engage stress and anxiety. The following are a few suggestions:
Tips for Getting Active:
- Think Small: Try to fit micro-fitness breaks into your day. Suggestions include walking to get the mail, taking the stairs at work, walking the length of the mall a few times when shopping. If you have a physical injury or disability, meet with a professional to discuss ways of exercising beneficially. Arm stretches, foot stretches, and eye-strain prevention exercises can be done as you work.
- Use Lunch and Breaks to deal with Work Stress: Creating a daily routine—an early morning walk, a walk at lunch, 5 minute yoga breaks—can serve both as stress/anxiety prevention and as tools for dealing with difficult days. Physical movement in the moment cues the brain to release norepinephrine, a stress-moderating chemical. Micro breaks are also useful in alleviating the physical stress of sitting all day and mental stress of your job. (1).
- Use Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR): A basic tool of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, PMR takes conscious control of each muscle group, one group at a time. Starting at your feet and working your way up your body, tense each muscle group as hard as you can, hold it, and then relax. PMR dissipates stress, as your body chooses the relaxed state. This in turn influences your thoughts and behaviors. When at your desk, tense your shoulders and neck, hold for 5 seconds, and relax. Notice the difference.
- Avoid being a “chair-person”: Sitting all day has been linked to several health issues, including shorter life span. Make it a habit to get up at least once every 40 minutes and take a brief walk to the water fountain, down the hallway, around your office, or to the back storage room to break up long periods of sitting. Do this when driving too; combine pit stops with a brief walk around the block, a few stretches, or some impromptu yoga.
- Play versus Work: Your day job may be physically active but there are stresses associated with work, including repetitive use of the same muscles. Creating exercise routines apart from the physical tasks of your job can give your mind and body a needed break.
- Simple Stretching or Yoga Routine: Having a routine of a few slow, deep stretches that your body knows and remembers can be a great way to reconnect physically and recharge, dissipating stress. Do several times a day.
- Vary your Routines: Varying your exercise routines lets you use different muscles and is more effective in stimulating dopamine production (3).
- Remember to Breathe: When stressed or experiencing anxiety, your breath is shallow and fast. Being aware of your breathing (breathing through your diaphragm) can help you slow down and dissipate stress.
A good captain regularly spreads out the sails and runs before the wind, and ensures the ship is in good condition so it can handle rough conditions. Similarly, regular exercise is an essential component of anxiety and stress prevention and treatment, and is part of a healthy lifestyle. It has a direct positive influence on your thoughts and behaviors (physical, mental, and behavioral being 3 components of cognitive behavioral therapy). By devoting a small amount of time to exercise habits you will feel better, your brain and body will work better, and your quality of life will increase. Feeling good about yourself creates a positive momentum which makes life’s stresses easier to navigate.
References: 1. Huffingtonpost.com. (March 27, 2013). 13 Mental Health Benefits Of Exercise. 2. Simon Young. How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs. Journal of Psychiatry Neuroscience. 2007 November; 32(6): 394–399. 3. Loretta Graziano Breuning. (2012). Meet your happy chemicals. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.