Exercise Your Stress Away

By Cindy Roe

NY Project Hope is a crisis counseling program that provides support and resources to help people cope with the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic.  

During the course of everyday life in the days before the pandemic, many of us led pretty busy lives; between work, caring for our children and families, maintaining our homes, and juggling the bills, it’s fair to say that stress was a steady presence in our lifestyles to some extent.  Today, given the impacts to our lives that have come about from the Covid pandemic, coupled with the plethora of day-to-day tasks and responsibilities we must still fulfill, this can leave us feeling like we’re on the fast track to stress-overload.  However, while feeling overwhelmed by these stressors right now is certainly understandable, there are ways to help us better cope with what we may be feeling.  One great trick for reducing stress and improving physical health is getting enough exercise.

Let’s Get Physical

pair of bicycle ridersThe stress response is the body’s way of alerting us to a threat.  A carryover from the caveman days as a necessity for survival in the wild, humans developed the fight-or-flight response- namely a rush of adrenaline in the body that would cause the heart to beat faster, an increase in breathing rate, the dilation of the pupils, and the cessation of digestive action- so that our homo sapiens relatives could either fight off enemies or dangerous animals or get away from them quickly.  While for the most part the threats we face today are drastically different, these same physiological responses to danger that our ancestors relied on are still activated when we are under stress.  When we exercise, the brain releases endorphins, which are naturally occurring chemicals that essentially turn off the body’s stress response, which lead to a more relaxed state.

Another way exercising helps improve our mood stems from the mental shift of our attention that naturally occurs when we workout.  Since exercising requires us to pay attention to the mechanics of how our body is moving, it helps us become more mindful and present in the moment, much like other forms of moving meditation do.  Additionally, this heightened state of awareness helps us anticipate how our bodies have to respond next, which engages the parts of the brain that govern our planning and strategizing skills.  Thus, we’re able to outwit an opponent during a tennis match by deciding where we want the ball to land on their turf, and how much power we’ll put into lobbing the ball over the net.  Although these cognitive efforts occur completely out of our conscious awareness, they provide us with a healthy form of respite from the problems and negative thoughts that otherwise command our attention.  In fact, mountains of scientific data on the benefits of exercise credits regular physical activity with increases in personal well-being, a more positive mood, and for inducing a more prolonged state of relaxation and calmness.

yoga classAnother plus for our sense of well-being: because it helps our bodies become stronger, leaner, and improves muscle tone, we’re more likely to feel better about ourselves when we start to see these improvements in the mirror; when we like how we look, we can’t help but feel better!

Types of Exercises: Aerobic and Low Impact

Aerobic workouts, which are any type of exercise that increases the heart rate and sustains it for a minimum of 3 minutes of continuous fast movement, are just that-anything that will get your heart rate up.  Things like Zumba or dancing, kickboxing, jogging, or swimming laps all fit the bill. Low impact exercise on the other hand focuses instead on building muscles and core strength.  Regardless of the types of exercise you want to try, be sure to start out slow, and checking in with your MD before starting any new fitness regime is always recommended.  Some things to try:

Yoga-This involves doing many different slow and gentle stretching movements, plus engaging the mind through the use of some visualization techniques is also pretty common.

Tai Chi-also a mind/body form of exercise, research found that Tai Chi improves bone density, lowers blood pressure, and reduces inflammation and joint pain.  A big plus here is that no special classes or equipment is needed, once you learn the basics, so Tai Chi can be done nearly anywhere.

Martial Arts-Most forms of martial arts can be thought of as an aerobic/low impact hybrid, since a typical class might involve multiple reps of kicks and punches, sparring, and moves that can be used in self-defense.  Also builds stamina, improves balance, as well as promoting self-discipline.  All told, a great option for improving self-confidence.

Swimming-no other form of exercise can claim to work the entire body as swimming can.  Check out your local Y, public schools, or colleges, which often offer classes and open pool use at fair rates.

Team or partnered sports– In addition to the physical benefits of exercise, team sports offer players the opportunity to build social connections to teammates, while competition with others can be motivating and push us to strive for new personal bests.

Get Outdoors– Don’t forget too about the other stress-reducing benefits that can be derived from communing with nature, whatever the season. Try your hand at winter favorites, like skiing, snowshoeing, or ice skating, or hit the trails for a hike or mountain bike ride in the warmer months.

Prefer to talk instead?  While these tips can be helpful in managing stress, it’s also important to remember that, particularly now- given the ways that the Covid-19 pandemic has changed so much about daily life- feeling stressed out is a normal and completely common reaction.  Asking for help if you’re feeling overwhelmed is always okay, whether from a family member, friend, or spiritual advisor, and the Crisis Counselors for NY Project Hope at Independent Living are always available to help, since sometimes it can be helpful to talk to someone you don’t know. Want to know more about how we can help?  Give us a call at 845-762-2275-talking to us is always free, voluntary, and confidential.

Visit Independent Living Inc on Facebook, Instagram, or on the web at www.myindependentliving.org for more blogs, tips and videos on stress management techniques and coping strategies. #iliprojecthope.

Cindy Roe is a crisis counselor from Independent Living, Inc. working on with the NY Project Hope program.