How Exercise Can Combat the Effects of Stress
The physical benefits of exercise—improving physical condition and fighting disease—have long been established, and physicians always encourage staying physically active. Exercise is also considered vital for maintaining mental fitness, and it can reduce stress. Studies show that it is very effective at reducing fatigue, improving alertness and concentration, and at enhancing overall cognitive function. This can be especially helpful when stress has depleted your energy or ability to concentrate.
When stress affects the brain, with its many nerve connections, the rest of the body feels the impact as well. So it stands to reason that if your body feels better, so does your mind. Exercise and other physical activity produce endorphins—chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers—and also improve the ability to sleep, which in turn reduces stress. Meditation, acupuncture, massage therapy, even breathing deeply can cause your body to produce endorphins. And conventional wisdom holds that a workout of low to moderate intensity makes you feel energized and healthy.
However, it is one thing to know exercise would be helpful, and that you should do it, and another thing to actually begin to do it. Incorporating exercise into what already seems like an overwhelming schedule can seem daunting. The following “10 Steps to Fitness” may help you begin to introduce fitness into your life in way that is manageable and maintainable.
10 Steps to Fitness
1. Proper Alignment: Proper alignment of your spine is essential when beginning a workout program. Just like driving your car when it is in need of an alignment can cause damage and excessive wear, exercising with a body that is out of alignment can also cause unnecessary stress to your joints. You may not even be aware of any misalignments, but once you start exercising and using your body more, it is essential to maintain proper spinal alignment to prevent injury.
2. Desire: You have to want to do it! The question for many people is, “Where do I find the motivation?” This can only be answered on an individual basis dependent on one’s goals and interests. Choose activities and exercises that you like to do, like dancing, hiking, racquet sports, etc. A training partner can also help keep you motivated.
3. Goal Oriented Attitude: Keep your goals simple and well defined. Be specific – “lose one pound a month” is a better goal than “lose 20 pounds by Christmas”. Break larger goals down into smaller realistic goals.
4. Core body stability: The first place you must start in any fitness program is at the core. Stretching and strengthening the muscles that surround the spine, specifically the stomach, and low back creates a stable mid-section that is needed for all sports and conditioning movements. Any muscular weakness or imbalance as well as joint instability at the core predisposes the spine to injury. Doctors of chiropractic are specialized in diagnosing and correcting any muscular imbalances at your core.
5. Strength training: Strength training not only builds strong muscles, it also changes the shape of your body by sculpting your physique. Another benefit is that increased muscle mass increases your metabolism. This means you will burn more calories while at rest.
6. Cardiovascular training: Aerobic exercise is an excellent way to burn fat and strengthen the cardiovascular system. Activities such as brisk walking, riding a bike, tennis, or swimming not only burn calories, but increase your metabolism so that you continue burning fat for up to 48 hours after the exercise. Three – 30 minute sessions a week are minimum to achieve this effect. Mix up your choices of aerobic conditioning so you don’t get bored.
7. Flexibility: Keeping your muscles limber and pliable helps you avoid injury. Stretch only when your muscles are warmed up. The best is after 10 minutes of a low intensity activity like walking. At the start of any flexibility program, go slowly and within your limits.
8. Healthful Nutrition Habits: a good nutritional program should provide you with these four results: decreased body fat, increased energy levels, increased mental focus, and decreased hunger and cravings.
9. Recuperation: Your body becomes fatigued with exercise. It rebuilds and replenishes itself in-between workouts. Rest and recuperation is as important as training – you must get enough! Plenty of restorative sleep on a good mattress and with a pillow that is appropriate for your size will allow your body to respond favourably to your workouts.
10. Consistency and Progression: Realistically, it takes time to attain better physical conditioning. Think months instead of weeks. If you’re having fun, the time will fly by and the results will speak for themselves. If you fall off the wagon for a few days or weeks, hop right back on and don’t feel guilty.
If you are still deciding whether you need increased physical activity in your life consider this: Health Canada states that “inactivity or leading a sedentary life is as harmful to your health as smoking!” In an ideal world people should treat exercise like brushing their teeth – you don’t wake up in the morning and think “do I feel like brushing my teeth today?” – NO – you just do it. Exercise should be no exception. Since it is so important to our well-being and overall health we shouldn’t give ourselves the option of NOT doing it – it should become part of our lives and daily routine.
Don’t ever give up on yourself – the dividends that exercise and increased physical activity pay are worth it. You can do it!
Dr. Sheila Hubscher B.Sc., D.C.