Finding ways to reduce stress can not only make you happier and healthier, it can help you live a longer a more productive life. In today’s fast-paced and hectic society, the cumulative effects of stress are literally killing people. It’s a sad and unfortunate reality. Below is some insight on the causes of stress; the body’s natural chemical response to stress; and how exercise can help you reduce stress…today.
We’ve all experienced stress in some way, shape or form. From the bully in the school yard to life’s deadlines that seem to surround our everyday activities. Before we set out to find ways to reduce stress, it’s worth taking a few minutes to familiarize ourselves with what stress is and how it affects our bodies.
When the body perceives danger, we have a naturally innate response that was meant to save us called the “fight or flight” response. This is something that we were born with and while it may have protected our ancestors from saber-tooth tigers, it is most often triggered today by our own perceptions and psychological reactions (i.e. “If I don’t finish this today, I’m going to get fired”….”Why won’t my 3 year-old stop whining at me?!”…etc..). We all have unique circumstances in life that may trigger this “fight or flight” response and most of them are psychological. So how does our body respond?
When danger is perceived, our bodies release chemical hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol into our bloodstream. This causes some rather dramatic responses from our body’s systems: our heart rate increases, our respiratory rate increases, blood is directed to the muscles of our limbs and away from other body functions like digestion, cell repair, and growth. We gain a heightened sense of perception and it causes us to scan the world around us for danger. Our bodies are ready for action.
This reaction has helped mankind survive for thousands of years on an evolving earth…so why would we want to reduce stress?? Because it’s cumulative affects can build up and cause us serious long-term harm. If we are constantly under stress, our bodies will divert necessary energy from critical life functions so that we’re ready for short term perceived dangers. The stress hormones will also decrease or immune system, making us more susceptible to disease. Stress also has been shown to raise blood pressure, cholesterol-level, and our blood’s susceptibility to clotting. And while some stress can be good, day-in and day-out stress can be very harmful to our systems.
If we are constantly in fight or flight mode, it’s almost as if we are living our life in fear…no opportunity for fun, love, or adventure…no open mind for new ideas…we just march around in reaction mode and concentrate on self-defense. The stress hormones can stay in our blood for awhile and prevent us from relaxing, sleeping, and just plain enjoying life. We need to make concentrated efforts to reduce stress to attain a better quality of life.
Exercise is one of the best ways to reduce stress. How? Exercise metabolizes (burns) those stress chemicals in your blood stream. And that makes sense because our bodies are waiting for a fight or flight response…so some vigorous activity (exercise) gives your body its desired response. Exercise also releases chemicals into your blood stream that counteract stress, called endorphins. These chemicals have been credited for the “runners high” and will leave you feeling good and care-free.
As exercise reduces stress chemically, it can also have a meditation-effect during long cardio workouts. Many long distance runners will experience a zoned-out state of consciousness during long runs. It’s a pleasant time to evaluate things or just ponder life’s tougher questions. The rhythm of running or other cardiovascular activity is a great way to get into this relaxed state. Some martial arts and meditation classes use deep breathing techniques to get into this state of relaxation. And this sense of calm will not only reduce your stress, but it can also prevent getting stressed-out too often in the future.
There are many, many positive health benefits of exercise…and now that you know that exercise reduces stress, too…try adding some more of it to your daily routine. A set of push-ups or crunches…a morning run…a brisk lunch-time walk…use exercise to reduce stress in your life and you’ll be happier and healthier for it!