Work, relationships, money worries, and illness can all cause overwhelming stress, which can have a significant impact on our physical and mental health. However, if you do feel yourself experiencing the physical side effects of stress, know that you are not alone. Surveys conducted by the American Psychological Association found that 84% of adults in the US experience prolonged stress. While 2 in 3 adults said their stress feels overwhelming.
If you’re one of the millions feeling stressed beyond your ability to cope. You should probably see a medical professional who can diagnose you and recommend treatments. Among the many treatments commonly recommended by medical professionals is exercise. Regular exercise can help you combat the physical impacts of stress and can help you navigate life’s challenges. But what are the physical impacts of stress, and how might exercise help you minimize them?
Stress takes a toll on your body and mind. Common physical impacts reported by Americans experiencing stress include:
Unfortunately, these symptoms often lead to a negative cycle of behaviors. Fatigue and headaches make it hard to exercise. Upset stomachs make it difficult to digest the food you need, and teeth grinding and muscle tension can lead to poor sleep and nightmares.
You can try to manage the physical impacts of stress with relaxation techniques and by improving sleep hygiene. But, exercise remains one of the best ways to manage your stress. Exercise pumps you with stress-busting endorphins, improves your sleep, and helps you address the hormonal roots of stress.
However, if it’s been a while since you last competed in a sport or went to the gym, it can be hard to know what kind of exercise is best for you. So, here are a few ways you can get involved in exercise and minimize the physical impacts of stress.
Running, cycling, and swimming are primarily “aerobic” exercises — that means your body is using oxygen to fuel energy systems. Aerobic exercise (or “cardio”) is usually performed at a lower intensity and completed over longer durations of time — but you don’t have to become a triathlete to enjoy its benefits.
Studies show that participating in light aerobic exercise can directly reduce our cortisol level (the hormone secreted when we feel stressed) and improve our ability to cope with external stressors. Reducing your cortisol levels can actually help you combat hair loss, so you can forget the myths surrounding baldness. Moderate aerobic exercise reduces the hormones which cause hair loss.
It’s tempting to swing into the bike/shoe shop or leisure center and just get started. However, if you engage in an aerobic activity you should be aware of the risks. In particular, aerobic activities require you to repeat the same movement pattern many times (run, stroke, pedal). This can lead to overuse injuries if you aren’t careful.
If you have the time and money, you should seriously consider joining a club soon after getting into aerobic activity. Clubs usually have coaches who can recognize poor technique and will be able to advise you to avoid future injuries.
Team sports are a great source of exercise. Not only do you develop a high level of fitness, but you will also build a community of teammates around you. This can keep you accountable and will get you up off the couch even when you feel entirely overwhelmed.
The key to team sports is finding the right club for you. Many adults avoid team sports, believing themselves to be too old and at risk of injury. However, if you live in or near a city, you will likely find a league that caters to your age and the intensity of play. For example, soccer leagues for the over 50s are extremely common throughout the US and include specific rules (like no slide-tackling) to keep older players safe.
Even though it’s been a few years since you laced them up, you can still find great benefit from team sports. Team sports boost your mood and help you manage stress. You’re constantly engaged with playing the game and don’t have time to think about money, relationships, or any other kind of stressors.
Team sports also give you a space to share what you are going through with a support group. This is important, as professionals in stress management reiterate that “Talking things through with a friend will also help you find solutions to your problems”. The relationships you form through team sports are based on trust, and you can get to know people extremely quickly when you’re competing together.
If you find socializing stressful, team sports might not be for you. Instead, you can invest yourself in solo sports that give you the same rush of dopamine without the stress of socialization or scheduling.
If ball sports are your thing, tennis, badminton, or racquetball might be a great way to unwind and destress. You can find clubs easily in your area, most of which will cater to your skill level. These individual sports also allow you to socialize without the pressure associated with team sports.
Combat sports like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) and Judo can seem intimidating from the outside, but usually present welcoming environments and engaging practices. Combat sports also require you to use your whole body while you practice — you’ll find yourself rolling around on the ground and will come to enjoy the flow-like feeling of engaging with a resisting opponent.
If sport-with-others sounds like a nightmare, then consider solo sports like rock climbing or golf. You can play an entire round of golf without speaking to another soul, and climbers often complete a full day of bouldering without exchanging more than a few words. Solo sports like golf and rock climbing do tend to have a steep learning curve, so it’s worth going to the range for a few months before booking up 18 holes. You can easily find guides online for solo sports like golf, bouldering, or surfing that will help you get up to speed.
Sometimes we just want to be told what to do. Exercise classes like yoga, CrossFit, and spin sessions provide a great level of instruction while you lose yourself in hard exercise. Good instructors will know how to ease you into the practice and will support you with guidance and gentle encouragement along the way.
You’re also guaranteed a rewarding exercise experience when you attend an exercise class. Unlike team sports, where you might be on the bench or away from the flow of play, exercise classes ensure that you will be moving for the duration of your participation.
There are plenty of ways to manage the physical side effects of stress in healthy ways. Yoga, running, and swimming can get your body moving and your heart pumping. Soccer, basketball, and tennis can introduce you to new crowds of exercise-loving people. However you choose to exercise, you can expect to reduce your cortisol levels, boost your happy-dopamine, and will see wonderful physical changes occur — all while reducing your stress. That how you deal with the side effects of stress.
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