Exercise and Stress Management
Multiple Stress Types
In our world of constant communication, stress levels quickly go from zero to 100 with a simple reading of a text or e-mail. This response begins in the brain and then extends into the body. Consider that some types of stress can be good, eustress, and includes such things as an upcoming date,a work promotion or other opportunity. Stress can also be bad, distress, and typically lasts longer than eustress and includes experiences such as physical pain, anxiety or financial difficulties. Even though you may be aware that one stress is happy and the other sad, your body’s physiological response to both types of stress is the same. Eustress and distress are daily concerns which mean optimization of health involves developing habits and routines to manage these stressors, specifically leveraging the benefits of eustress, and reducing distress
The Body’s Reaction to Stress
The body has developed many protection mechanisms to keep you alive. One of these is your parasympathetic nervous system– perhaps the best known example of this system in action is the fight or flight response which protects you from danger as it prepares your body to confront the stress or run from it. As a result, your heart and breathing rates increase, your muscles tense and your body releases the hormone epinephrine. If the stress continues, your body adds cortisol to keep you on alert. Once the danger has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system returns your heart and breathing rates to normal, relaxes your muscles and reduces the flow of hormones. However, if you are unable to relax and your body remains in a chronically distressed state, you may experience increases in blood pressure, excess body weight and long-term conditions such as anxiety and depression.
Considerations Based on Stress Type
Exercise can be used effectively as a stress management tool, however, exercising incorrectly can also be an unhealthy form of stress. The more stress you are experiencing, the more recovery you need to optimize health. During stressful periods such as increased travel, holidays, end of the quarter work and other work deadlines, when you are less likely to be able to allocate additional time to recovery, consider lowering your exercise intensity. While this may sound counterintuitive, lowering your exercise intensity not only reduces distress but can help your body and mind recover. During times of less stress, it is appropriate to increase the intensity of your exercise prescription. Daily tracking of your heart rate variability, HRV, is a great way to monitor your body’s ability to take on additional stress in the form of exercise intensity. If you are of the mindset that high intensity exercise prescription is your only workout option, doubling your efforts in other stress-management techniques to support your parasympathetic nervous system is recommended to optimize both health and performance.
Conscious stress recovery is a beneficial skill to keep your body and mind be, and stay, healthy. FiT’s health hierarchy provides a useful framework to apply to regulate and deescalate stress. In addition to adapting your exercise prescription, some other areas you can address include:
- Utilizing an effective eating strategy – avoid foods, such as gluten, that stimulate the sympathetic nervous system and add physiological stress including inflammation. Maintain proper hydration to avoid additional physiological stress.
- Practicing good sleep hygiene – during sleep, the parasympathetic nervous system is counteracting the high blood pressure and increased heart rates from stress, so develop a sleep routine and remain consistent with your weekly sleep habits.
- Implementing relaxation techniques – visualizing less stress, spending time in an infrared sauna, turning off your phone at work, prioritizing your tasks and deep breathing decrease your stress.
- Making time for self-care – reboot your parasympathetic nervous system by spending time with friends and loved ones doing activities you enjoy.
Exercise for Optimal Health
Understanding the effects of stress on your nervous system emphasizes the importance of making conscious changes across the five domains of the health hierarchy. These changes are of particular importance during elevated or prolonged stress; keep this in mind the next time stress enters and you find yourself ‘needing’ to fit in your workout; adjust your workout to account for the time you have available for recovery and keep exercise working for your health, rather than against it.