Exercise Cures Stress

couple exercising
July 21, 2014 (Updated: August 16, 2018)
Lily Moran

What are you doing about the stress in your life? It’s a sad fact of life these days that too many people are ignoring this silent killer, instead of finding ways of managing and reducing stressors.

I understand that it’s tempting to do nothing and hope stress will just magically go away. Many times, after a rough day at work, all I really want to do is escape from the pressures and tune everything out. But here’s what I do instead.

I go for a jog or find some stairs to climb, anything that will get my heart rate up, fill my lungs with oxygen, and get those ‘feel good’ endorphins flowing. (Don’t worry! You can start exercising with something less intense than stairclimbing.)

Now maybe you’re skeptical. When I tell my patients that they can exercise stress away, I usually get “the look,” the one that says, “You’re kidding, right?”

Some patients even flat-out refuse. “Working out is the last thing I want to do when I’m having one of those days,” Marlene told me when I suggested she take a brisk walk at lunchtime.

As a Circuit Court judge, Marlene had a lot of “those days,” not to mention the constant pressure created by a huge backlog of cases.

But she also had 90 minutes for lunch, giving her enough time to go for a walk. The problem was convincing her to invest a little of that time in her own health.

If you’re letting stress accumulate, sooner or later, the chickens will come home to roost. In fact, after I explained the consequences of unrelieved stress, Marlene decided that slipping on a pair of walking shoes and going outside wasn’t such a bad idea.

Stress has huge consequences on your health – even though most people have no idea what is making them feel so bad.

Whenever a patient brings me a long list of symptoms, things like irritability, fatigue, sleep problems, repeated colds or infections, high blood pressure, trouble with memory, weight gain, cravings for carbohydrates and sweets, the first things that comes to my mind are stress and cortisol.

Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands during stressful times. It’s designed as a lifesaver. Together with adrenaline, cortisol mobilizes your body for fight or flight.

Since it also suppresses your digestive and immune systems, cortisol is not something you want hanging around for weeks or months at a time. But that’s what happens when you live with chronic, unrelieved stress.

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Long term, high levels of cortisol raise your risk of insomnia, heart disease, obesity, depression, digestive disorders, skin problems, and memory difficulties.

Now consider this: every thirty minutes of exercise neutralizes 12 hours of stress! So we’re not talking about spending hours in a gym or on a treadmill. A half an hour covers a lot of territory!

Exercise revs up production of anti-stress neurotransmitters, like serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine that are important to your mood, memory, and ability to learn.

But maybe, like many people, it’s tough for you to find thirty minutes of downtime to work out. No worries! I’ve got a remedy for that, too!

You’ve probably heard that sitting is the new smoking when it comes to health. Sedentary behavior, or sitting for long periods of time, now rivals smoking in terms of the number of annual deaths it causes.

So here’s my “prescription” to free yourself of stress and its complications – set a timer to go off every 55 minutes. Then spend five minutes every hour on the hour moving some of your 800 muscles!

You can climb stairs, stretch, walk, dance, do yoga, walk in place while talking on the phone – pretty much anything but sit.

Using this method, in the course of an eight-hour day, you’ll spend 40 minutes working out. Not bad for someone strapped for time. And more importantly, you won’t be sitting continuously for those eight hours.

Don’t be surprised if, like Marlene, you lose weight, get a big lift in energy, watch your high blood pressure tumble, and find that you can think more clearly and remember more. Those are all benefits of living with less stress.

“When you mentioned exercise, my first thought was ‘No way. I’m too old to go to a gym and jump around with a bunch of 20-year-olds,” Marlene said in a follow-up visit. “But when you suggested walking at lunch time, something clicked. I realized I could do that.

“Maybe I didn’t feel like it the first few times, but now I actually look forward to getting outside and moving. I even walk on weekends and holidays, just because it feels good and I feel better afterward.”

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