Updated: Mar 4
How Training your Body Helps You Defeat Mental Stress and Improves Your Performance.
Most people will agree that they experience some level of stress as a part of their daily lives, especially when in high demand executive jobs, and though it may not be possible to escape all of the sources of stress from day-to-day activities, thankfully there is a highly effective, natural stress management technique that has a variety of both mental and physical benefits – exercise!
Ever noticed how your body feels when you’re under stress? Your muscles are tense, you may feel chest tightness, a pounding pulse or headaches, or you may experience problems such as insomnia or an inability to stay focussed at work. The worry and discomfort of all these physical symptoms can in turn lead to even more stress and a decline in performance, creating a vicious cycle between your mind and body.
Exercising is an effective way to break this cycle and since the body and mind are so closely linked, when your body feels better so too, will your mind. So how exactly does exercise defeat stress and what are the benefits?
Fixing The Damage
Exercise addresses the long-term negative effects of stress on the brain by reversing the damage created by chronic stress. Matthew Stults-Kolehmainen, Ph.D., a kinesiologist at the Yale Stress Center, says that elevating one’s heart rate can actually reverse physical damage to the brain caused by stressful events: “Stress atrophies the brain — especially the hippocampus, which is responsible for a lot of functions – memory in particular. When you’re stressed, you forget things.” Exercise, by contrast, promotes production of neurotransmitters and endorphins such as serotonin, dopamine and brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), which are associated with elevated mood, learning and memory and can improve thinking dulled by stressful events. “By promoting these important neurochemicals, exercise can help sharpen thinking”, he adds.
Endorphins released during exercise also provide a more immediate positive effect on stress and mood. They act as natural painkillers giving your body an overall sense of relaxed happiness and a general good feeling, this in turn elevates mood and reduces levels of anxiety. Studies have shown a 20-30 minute period of high-intensity exercise, such as a rigorous jog or resistance training, is enough to help drive a release of these naturally occurring hormones and they usually peak about one hour after you’ve finished exercising. If you add exercising with a partner to the mix, your body also releases oxytocin another feel good hormone that neutralizes the physical effects of stress and makes you feel good.
Train the Body, De-Stress the Mind
Studies show rhythmic exercises helps calm your mind by focussing your thoughts, freeing your mind and helping you to process stressful events from the day. On a common psychiatric metric called PALMS, people who have just finished a workout rate higher for mood, memory and energy — and lower for tension, anxiety and depression. The Rhythmic, repetitiveness of exercise also releases tensions in muscles helping you burn off negative emotions that can lead to frustration. Harvard Health Publications state, “many people find that using large muscle groups in a rhythmic, repetitive fashion works best; we call it "muscular meditation." Running on a treadmill, elliptical machine or even fast walking work well.
Exercise also helps the body to properly utilize and absorb the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones are released throughout your body when you experience stress and if not utilized properly they can produce those feelings of muscle tension, chest tightness, elevated pulse and irritability – this may eventually even put you at risk of stress related illnesses.
Engaging in regular exercise helps improve sleeping habits and sleep quality. Difficulty sleeping at night can lead to a lack of energy and a heightened sense of anxiety. Exercise can help change this negative pattern of behaviour, making you feel more in control of your life and less stressed.
The Physical Stuff
Even a simple 20-minute stroll can clear the mind and reduce stress, but a balance of regular higher intensity resistance training and cardiovascular exercise is best for performance. Scientific data suggests that frequency is most important so, if you are super busy, aim for shorter regular workouts rather than longer less frequent ones.
At Club Forma, our personal trainers typically recommend:
• Resistance training: 3 to 4 sessions each week, lasting 30-40 minutes. Each session should include a balanced variety of free weight exercises and include large movements, such as deadlifts, squats, and overhead presses and leg press performed in a steady rhythmic cadence.
• Cardiovascular exercise: 3 to 5 times per week, lasting at least 20 minutes. Select repetitive flowing exercises for muscular meditation – elliptical training, brisk inclined walking, running and rowing are especially good.
• For an extra warm fuzzy feeling partner up with an exercise buddy, or join a sports team.
• At the Club Forma personal training studio in Richmond, we have a carefully selected playlist of music to get you energised, but if our style of music is not your jam, download your own music onto your portable media player to help get you into the cardio groove.
If you’re wanting to learn more about how to manage stress from work or your busy lifestyle, book a free consultation with one of our expert personal trainers and learn we can help you perform better at life every day.