The secret to surviving stress

March 25, 2005
As you know from experience, stress can make you feel weak, weary, and even depressed. What is a highly effective, strongly proven remedy? Exercise! We know you're not surprised!

by Juli Kagan, RDH, MEd

It's 4:15 in the afternoon, and it has been a relatively uneventful day, minus the ubiquitous doctor delays for exams, the whining child (who really has no reason to be droning so dramatically), and the patient who just can't seem to get numb enough for his necessary debridement. Actually, it's just another day at the dental office and the stress can feel overwhelming!

As you know from experience, stress can make you feel weak, weary, and even depressed. People handle the tension in a variety of ways, including yelling, overeating, acting belligerent, shutting down, or even melting down. There is one way to relieve the pressure, however, and best of all it is good for you! Beyond a doubt it is also the most effective form of releasing tension. What is this highly effective, strongly proven remedy? Exercise! I know you're not surprised!

Numerous studies have shown exercise provides excellent stress-relieving benefits. To top it off, resistance training and aerobic exercise promotes strength and empowerment. It does take effort and desire, but if you set your calendar and mind to a time and place, the benefits are overwhelming.

The most important thing is to find an exercise or program that you will enjoy. This will be dependent on you physical ability and personal preferences. Some people enjoy hard-core spinning, while others desire the mindfulness of yoga. Try to choose a program that you will stick with. I personally mix it all up. Some days I bike outside, and other days I do Pilates or yoga. What I know for sure is that when I start feeling down in the dumps I simply go take a walk and in no time I am feeling better.

The physiology of exercise and why we feel so good doing it is a fascinating science, but for simplicity's sake, let's just say that exercise creates a natural high unlike any drug. Exercise essentially releases endorphins in the brain. Endorphins, as you may know, are opium-like substances and have been identified to ease pain and produce a sense of euphoria. Working out, particularly aerobically, creates this hormonal rush, sometimes called "runner's high." It doesn't take hours to induce this endorphin surge, but once it happens in your own body you will feel as if you want to "kick it up." You get a "second wind" and your mind and body start to feel elated. You are happy and, best of all, it happens naturally! No drugs, no placebo, no guesswork. You simply exercised!

To top it off, brain chemistry gets involved while exercising and neurons in the brain secrete neurotransmitters such as: serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. These hormones are known to improve moods. Conversely, if one is deficient in one or more of these naturally occurring hormones, depression, anxiety, impulsiveness, aggression, and an increase in appetitive occurs. A recent study published in Archives of Internal Medicine showed that exercise increased levels of these natural antidepressants if the person was depressed. Exercise is truly good medicine!

Moreover, exercise has shown to improve sleep, aid in relaxation, and enhance energy, attentiveness, and best of all memory! Exercise is, beyond a doubt, the "magic pill" to physical, mental and emotional health.

But why do people still seem lax about committing themselves to a regular program of fitness? Some people think that exercise:

1. Is burdensome

2. Requires a commitment and often we appear overcommitted to many things already

3. Is not part of our day

4. We are doing is not enjoyable

5. Is demanding; you have to do the work

6. Requires you to sometimes go beyond your comfort zone and that can be challenging

The bottom line is that exercise takes time; you must make the time to exercise. I implore you to make an appointment with yourself and find an activity that is enjoyable, accessible, and feasible. One that you will do every day or two -- no excuses! Whether you exercise by yourself or with someone else, taking time to get healthier is a gift you are giving to your "self" and the lives of those you touch.

Aim to exercise about 30 minutes every day. If this is too much, drop back a day. Make it a goal to just get moving! The Surgeon General recommends 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise every day, and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommends increased and sustained cardiovascular elevation for 15 to 30 minutes, three to four times a week. For optimal fitness, the American College of Sports Medicine, the gold standard in the fitness community, recommends 20 to 60 minutes of aerobic exercise, three to five times a week and two to three strength workouts per week.

Studies have shown that resistance training (using weights) is imperative for women, in particular, for bone repair, regeneration, and prevention. Do what works for you; spend some time running or biking or swimming one day and lifting weights on the next day. Just get moving!

To see consistent stress reduction you need to be physically active every day, but you will benefit from exercising if you can only squeeze it in three to five times a week.

If you really want to focus on stress relief, nothing beats mind/body activities such as yoga, tai chi or Pilates. These exercise disciplines truly engage the mind. Mental focus becomes a purpose of the exercise. This mental concentration sharpens your awareness and acts as an exceptional distraction from the problems of the day.

For most of us, looking good often equates to feeling good. Exercise gloriously improves physical health; mental acuity, enhances self-esteem (by pushing yourself and meeting the challenges), and mostly, exercising reduces stress.

If you still are not motivated to exercise consider this: Dr. Robert S. Eliot, a cardiologist who heads the Institute for Stress Medicine in Scottsdale, Arizona, estimates that about a half million people who die have lesions in their heart muscle that are produced by excess adrenaline. Why did they have the excess adrenaline? Too much stress! So, go ahead, take a walk with your "self," join a yoga class or lift some weights¿you'll feel the stress melt away!

Juli Kagan, RDH, MEd, has her degree in educational psychology and studied achievement, motivation, and adult learning extensively toward that end. She teaches at Broward Community College and Nova Southeastern University Dental School in Ft. Lauderdale. When not in the classroom or clinic, Juli can be found doing or teaching Pilates. She welcomes comments at (561) 305-5854.