January is a notorious month for feeling blue. Financial pressures and the end of festivities can combine into a cocktail of stress and gloom, which can lead to elevated levels of damaging hormones. Can regular exercise really help control this stress?
What is stress?
A little bit of stress is quite harmless and even beneficial. It motivates us to get up in the morning, helps us complete new challenges and gives us bursts of energy when we need it. Stress is also a vital warning signal when the brain is perceiving a threat. The body is flooded with chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline which increase your heart rate and blood pressure. This is actually a survival reaction. Your body is now pumped up and ready to run. Plus your senses suddenly have a laser-like alertness which help you react quickly to the smallest things.
Sound good? Well, the down side is that stress which lingers around for weeks or months starts to damage your heath. Because the effects of stress aren’t always visible, it’s easy to think it’s not affecting you. But hormones are so powerful. For example, the effects of too much cortisol include suppressed immune system, decreased libido, accelerated ageing, obesity (especially around the waist) and increased risk of heart disease.
How can exercise reduce stress?
For some people, even the idea of exercise stresses them out. So how can exercise actually reduce stress?
Firstly, vigorous exercise increases levels of mood-boosting endorphins into the brain. The neurotransmitters and endorphins created by a single exercise session can generate up to 2 hours of good-feeling afterwards. At the same time, exercise lowers levels of chemicals which cause stress.
Improved physiological communication
Exercise makes the parts of our bodies which are involved with stress (heart, brain, muscles, renal system) communicate much more closely than normal. Our central nervous system must then work harder to control this increased communication. This could be considered a workout of the communication system. In other words, the more exercise we do, the more efficient our body becomes at responding to stress.
Exercise provides a source of distraction and helps take your mind off problems. Activities which requires concentration such as martial arts are also able to get you into a zen-like state, calming your mind and improving your focus. Exercise also forces fresh, oxygenated blood through your body which helps you think more clearly.
Which exercises best reduce stress?
To a degree, the best workout can depend on your type of stress. If you have pent up feelings of anger then a tough workout like spinning or martial arts may initially provide a release. If you are anxious then a calming yoga or tai chi session may work better.
High energy workouts. Vigorous workouts are considered the best way to release those feel-good endorphins and avoid over-taxing the body. According to one American study just 14 minutes a day of vigorous activity has protective effects against stress. Exercise is a form of physical stress, so keeping your workouts short and intense means you get the positive effects of the stress hormones, without over-training. Doing high energy exercises such as weight training or martial arts can also be an effective release for emotions.
Lifting weights is a brilliant way to relieve stress and tension. Keep your training sessions short (less than 45 minutes) and you will release the endorphins while limiting the release of cortisol.
Stress can make our muscles stiff and tense without us realising it. Stretching is proven to stimulate receptors in the nervous system which can reduce the production of stress hormones. So even if you’ve not got time for a workout, take 2-3 minutes to stretch your limbs.
Exercise you (truly) enjoy
If you want to reduce those stress hormones, aim to feel good. The magic of finding an exercise you enjoy is that you will do it regularly. This will stimulate further endorphins and elevate bloodstream levels higher in the long term.
Don’t waste your life forcing yourself to do activities you hate. If you find the treadmill tedious, don’t use it! There are so many different gym classes nowadays (anyone for Zumba, martial arts, Boxercise?) that might be better for you. Mixing it up a bit will also benefit your body. Setting yourself goals or working out with a friend can also motivate you and increase enjoyment. If you love being outdoors, try biking and trekking too.
Tune into your changing needs. For example, if you’re surrounded by people all day it might be more relaxing to exercise quietly on your own. Conversely, joining a group session may be just what you need to life your spirits.
The biggest thing to remember with exercise is the importance of quality over quantity. Do what feels good, for a short time, do it wholeheartedly and you will be more likely to leave stress at the door.