By Jessica Brugess
Many people use physical exercise as a way to help manage the symptoms of daily stress in their lives. Often, one can feel the need to meet the heightened demands of life with even tougher workouts, as if trying to sweat out the very seeds of stress with each stride, breath or press. Few of us realize that exercise itself is a stress, and if we push too hard or choose the wrong activities we can be doing more harm than good. The strength, stamina, and mental clarity we achieve with ongoing physical exertion does not depend strictly on how hard you push, but also a great deal on what kind of rest and recovery you take. Each physical exercise session serves to “stress” the body to such a degree that it actually causes damage– microscopic tears within muscle tissue, for example – that the body has to repair. Mother Nature had a good design however, because given the right amount of physical and mental rest, combined with good raw materials in the form of healthy nutrition, clean air and water, the body will work to repair itself to be just a little bit stronger than it was originally. This will ensure that you can stand up to that same ‘stress’ the next time.
Once again, it’s not the exercise session that makes you stronger/faster/calmer/better, it is the rest period where these changes actually take place. Many of us, particularly the Type As in the crowd, tend to overdo the training (i.e. stress) and give less emphasis to the rest (i.e. improvements). All work and no play will make you susceptible to symptoms of overtraining (or exercise stress) such as chronically sore muscles, food cravings, sleep and mood disturbances, decreased enjoyment of your activities, and increased susceptibility to injury – basically all of the things you are trying to avoid by exercising!
The following are some guidelines to make sure that your exercise regime is helping you to manage the stress in your life, not simply creating more. Listen to your body and mind. Though routine and consistency are important, if you are screaming for a night off from the gym, take it! The rest may actually improve your performance for the next round. Generally, if you had a hard day or a tough workout the day before, take it easy or take it off. If your muscles are still sore from the last workout, take a night off, do a light workout, or find an alternative activity. Seriously, the old adage “no pain, no gain” is ridiculous. If it hurts, don’t do it.
Exercise may be uncomfortable as you push your limits, but if you are dealing with a high level of stress in other areas of your life, you may be better off to respect your limits until your stress levels are more manageable. Engage in a proper warm up and cool down. This allows your body to deal with the increased intensity, creating less physical stress. Ensure that you are well fed not only on a general basis, but also before and after your exercise sessions. Water is also a necessity. (Poor nutrition and dehydration also ‘stress’ the body out).
Use allied health professionals (Kinesiologists, massage therapists, reflexologists, chiropractors, etc) to help you manage the physical manifestations of your stress (injury, workout soreness, etc) Some of my favourite stress managing activities include: Walking or running through the trails. Fresh air, solitude (or companionship, if I’m with a good friend), and Mother Nature. Not to mention the great vibrations of the colour green through the spring and summer months. Yoga. My passion and my lifesaver. I try for a daily physical and spiritual practice, which helps me to manage stress in many ways through my day, but at the very least I’ll do a bit of stretching at the end of the day. Stretching.
Nothing fancy, but some simple flexibility exercises can release a great amount of tension from the body and the mind. Breathing! Always my favourite for many ailments, you can simply sit and listen to the sound of your own breath, or do any number of exercises designed to calm body and mind. For a simple exercise, try breathing out for just a little longer than you breathe in. Remember, healthy exercise is simply managed stress. Learn to do this with your body, and your mind will happily follow along.
Jessica Brugess, is a Sudbury-based Certified Kinesiologist and healthy living consultant.