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If stress is weighing you down, exercise may be the answer

Stress is everywhere in today’s world

The world we live in today can seem like a breeding ground for stress. As a result, stress is an unavoidable part of life for a significant portion of the population. Recent statistics suggest that 70% of Americans experience some form of stress or anxiety every day, and most say that it interferes with their lives to at least a moderate degree. While daily stress generally comes and goes, about one in four individuals will go on to develop a mental health condition of some sort in their lifetime. Whether stress is an occasional inconvenience or an everyday impairment, most of us would probably agree that we could benefit from less in our lives. These days, there seems to be nearly as many apparent cures for stress as there are causes for it, and the effectiveness of each one varies significantly. But one of the most tried and true solutions to reduce stress is actually pretty simple: get more exercise.

Exercise benefits the body and brain in a number of ways

Getting regular aerobic exercise—which includes walking, running, and any other activity that increases your heart rate—will bring about a number of positive changes to your body, particularly to your metabolism and heart. It can also exhilarate and relax, and provide both stimulation and a calming effect by the same process. This calming effect is how exercise can manage stress and stress-related disorders like anxiety and depression as well. There are several explanations as to why exercise is responsible for these mental benefits, but it seems likely that the changes are related to both chemical and behavioral factors. On the chemical end, exercise has been found to reduce levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers that are responsible for the “runner’s high” and feelings of relaxation many people experience after a hard workout. Behavioral factors have also been found to play a role in this process, as positive changes reinforce and encourage positive actions. What this means is that when you see improvements in your body—such as increased strength, better stamina, or a smaller waistline—it makes you feel better about yourself, which will all go on to reduce your stress levels as a result.

Take your pick from the many exercise options available

When done regularly, nearly any time of exercise will help bring about these positive physical and mental changes for you. Brisk walking and jogging are some of the most popular and easiest ways to get active and clear the mind, but others may prefer hiking, biking, swimming, yoga, high-intensity interval training, kayaking, or even rock climbing. It’s really up to you to find some type of exercise—or several—that work for you and do them on a regular basis. There is also a special sort of exercise known as autoregulation exercise that is specifically designed to replace the vicious cycle of stress with a cycle of relief. Several approaches may be used to accomplish this, such as deep breathing exercises, mental exercises like meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation, which focuses on loosening up tight and tense muscles throughout the body, one group at a time.

A physical therapist can help get you on your best foot forward

Current guidelines recommend getting about 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (like brisk walking) or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise (like jogging) every week. If you are just starting to integrate exercise into your life or increasing the amount you already do, it may take time to reach these marks, so a gradual approach is always best. Seeing a physical therapist can also help you get to where you want to be. Physical therapists are movement experts that work with patients on a personalized basis to help them move better and more frequently. So if you’re trying to increase your weekly exercise, a physical therapist can provide you with recommendations on what types you should attempt, or they may find a specific exercise program based on your abilities and goals to help you succeed.

-Summarized from an article published in Harvard Health
December 18, 2018
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