Get The Stress Out, With Your Workout
You hate your job; your girlfriend just dumped you and your car’s engine just exploded. You come home to find six messages on your answering machine; two from late debts that you owe; one from your boss, letting you know he needs you to work the weekend; and one more from the auto shop telling you that the cost to fix your car is three times what the car is worth. Sounds like you’re having “one of those days”; the kind that you just can’t wait to end. Tomorrow you will dread even getting out of bed. Sound familiar? While these examples together may sound extreme, the bottom line is that stress is an integral part of our daily lives. As much as we would like to get away from it, it’s always there. What’s important is not trying to completely eliminate stress from our lives, but rather how we deal with it. Let’s take a look at some of the common ways people deal with stress.
Regardless of the amount of stress in their lives, the most common thing people do at the end of the workday is plop down in front of the TV, zone out for a few hours, then go to bed. After a bad day, it becomes even more important to lose oneself in the fantasy that is Television. The problem with using television as an outlet for stress is that it quickly leads to a rut. In an effort to forget the troubles in their own lives, people become completely absorbed with the lives, real and imaginary, of those they see on television. Soon the lives of the stars become a higher priority than their own. Compound that with the temptation that comes from viewing all of those fast-food commercials and you’re looking at a recipe for disaster.
Many think that compulsive, or “comfort” eating affects women more than men. Truth is, men are just as susceptible as women. In fact, this is one of the most common means of stress relief used. When one is feeling stressed out, or just down in general, it’s so easy to open the fridge and start snacking. Or the other scenario, while driving home after a rough day, pulling into a favorite fast food drive-through and ordering a mega-size meal with an extra large shake. Eating foods that taste good to us induces a type of euphoria. We focus on the taste, and in eating as much as we can. Comfort eating can quickly become addictive. This becomes evident when it becomes the only pleasure one gets each day. The biggest problem with comfort eating is that healthy foods such as carrots, broccoli, chicken and tuna fish are not what most people reach for. We are more likely to reach for the ice cream, candy bar, French fries or a greasy triple cheeseburger.
Some days nothing seems better than heading down to the bar and “knocking back a few” with your buddies. A few beers and you’ll be right as rain, or so it would seem. The trouble with using alcohol as a stress relief is three-fold. Firstly, in spite of the sometimes-lively behavior it causes, alcohol is a depressant. When stressed out, drinking copious amounts of booze only causes the anxiety to worsen, even if the initial reason for that anxiety is temporarily forgotten. Negative emotions become heightened, which in turn causes tempers to flare. Secondly, stress has a tendency to cause people to consume a lot more alcohol in a shorter period of time than normal. This can not only lead to one getting more inebriated than intended, but hits hard in the wallet at the same time. Drinking, particularly in bars, is an expensive habit to get into. Thirdly, having downed more than a few cocktails can lead to a DUI and confrontation with the police that you had never planned on. As a stress relief, going to bar is a lot more dangerous than many of us ever imagined. Every time you use the bar to “drown the blues away,” you are playing Russian roulette. Keep playing and sooner or later you’re going to lose.
The tobacco companies have recently paid a heavy toll in lawsuits, and we cannot go a single day without seeing numerous signs and commercials talking about the dangers of smoking. In spite of this, smoking is still a popular habit that is nearly epidemic, especially among young people. Regardless of their initial reasons for starting, most people tend to use smoking as a form of stress relief. It is also one of the habits that are hardest to quit, because the minute someone’s day starts to go sour, it is all too easy to reach for the handy cigarette. Illegal drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, Ecstasy, crank, etc. are all used with the same goal in mind, to escape from reality. In the end, Reality eventually comes crashing down with devastating results.
When it comes right down to it, none of these methods are advisable for relieving stress. The side effects alone should be enough to sway most people. And besides, they are not even that effective at making one feel less stressed out! If anything, these habits, along with the entire initial stress that lead people to indulge in them, leads to a dead end. Now that we’ve looked at some bad habits and poor stress relievers that one should avoid, what’s left? What can one do to relieve stress in a healthy manner?
The Answer? Exercise!
The answer is simple… exercise! For many people, working out is thought to be a tedious endeavor, something that you do after work, before you go home and watch TV. And that is only if you are “feeling up to it.” Too often many of us decide to give the gym a miss after we’ve had a stressful day. This is absolutely the worst thing we can do! Times of anxiety and stress are in fact the perfect times to hit the gym. Let us examine some of the stress-relieving benefits of exercise, as well as some of the differences that come from living an active vs. a sedentary lifestyle.
All of us have certain habits. A habit is something that has become natural to us, to the point that a lot of times we are not even aware of them. This is especially true of sedentary individuals. A lot of times they are not even aware of the fact that their bad habits are destroying both their body and their mind. And even if they are aware of it, they force the realization from their minds, focusing only on how their habit is making them feel better at that particular moment. Irreparable damage occurs when the cycle of stress, combined with bad habits to cope with it, are left too long unchecked. Compulsive eating leads to obesity, which in today’s society is one of the leading causes of low self-esteem; to say nothing of the damage it inflicts upon the heart, lungs and circulation! Did I mention the ever-rising cost of these habits? You could have joined three gyms for the cost of one month worth of nicotine and alcohol dependency. Alcohol abuse destroys the kidneys, liver, a massive number of brain cells, plus it also speeds up the aging process. Smoking is the leading cause of lung and throat cancer, as well as many pulmonary problems. It also destroys teeth and gums, causing smokers to have absolutely wretched breath. When we view a member of the opposite sex that we may find attractive, that attraction is obliterated the second that individual “lights up.” Unless, of course, that other person also smokes, which causes a whole different kind of problem and stress. You now have your own bad habit and you’re spending time with someone who is also in his or her own self-destruction. Not a good motivator to get healthy! Partners should be supportive and should encourage each other into working out together and eating healthy.
Those leading an athletic lifestyle are more naturally inclined to make wiser choices when it comes to what habits they will allow themselves to get into. Since they tend to be more health conscious, they usually shy away from fast food and sugary snacks. If they do allow themselves the occasional triple cheeseburger or extra large ice cream, it is the exception and not the rule. If athletes happen to go out to the clubs with friends, they will drink to a minimum, or in most cases, abstain altogether. If so-called “friends” take issue with them not wanting to drink, then the athletes have to wonder if those people are true friends, or people they actually want to be around. True friends will support an athlete’s decision, and in many cases will be inspired by the example being set. Athletes also avoid cigarettes like the plague. So what does become habit for an athlete? An athlete’s habits stem from what they know will sustain and improve physical and mental conditioning. Eating healthy foods, drinking a lot of water, taking vitamins and supplements as needed, becomes the norm. Since they are conscious about all the aspects of their health, they try to set higher standards of personal hygiene. Exercising, and general physical activity become habit. Just as the smoker will always ensure, no matter what, they will have access to a pack of cigarettes, athletes in the habit of exercise will always make sure that they fit their workout into their schedule by any means necessary, while still getting a good nights sleep to rest the muscles to help build them up. Bad days for athletes are also inevitable. When one does happen, the sedentary individual will either head for the bar, the nearest fast-food joint, or they will just go home and plop on the couch with the TV remote in one hand and a bag of greasy chips in the other. Afterwards, feelings of guilt and depression are common.
Conversely, an athlete, after a bad day, will head to the gym and start hammering steel; or they make their way to the pool and start doing laps; or grab their bike and go for a ride. While at that moment they may not be able to change the bad things that led to their day becoming ruined, what they are capable of is controlling the negative feelings that come with it. Upon completion of a workout, motivation and just an overall good feeling is the end result. One is still completely aware of all the issues that caused all the stress in the first place; however things no longer seem to be insurmountable.
Physical and mental conditionings are intertwined. As one improves, so does the other. Those who lead a sedentary lifestyle tire more easily and usually succumb to mental and physical fatigue as the day progresses. This in turn leads to less productivity and a greater likelihood of making mistakes. It can also lead to forgetfulness and overall less motivation to get things done. Sooner or later everything seems to come to a head, and all of a sudden all the mistakes and things forgotten come back all at once and anxiety and stress are the result. For the sedentary individual, this leads to one or more of the unhealthy stress-relieving habits discussed earlier.
On the other hand, those who live an athletic lifestyle have naturally higher energy levels. As they don’t fatigue nearly as quickly, their mental alertness will remain constant. They have the energy, both physical and mental, to focus on all of the day’s tasks. They are usually better natured about their lives, and when minor stressors do come into play, they are more likely to rationalize and spend their time coming up with a solution, rather than finding a way to temporarily make it go away. What’s more, athletes tend to have a mellower disposition, and are less likely to get worked up over minor issues. Do not mistake this to mean they blow things off. In actuality, their increased alertness allows them to better analyze the situation, determine real solutions, and see what actual impact it will have on their lives. Though, the perceived impact may not seem to be as bad to them as it does to someone whose energy levels are shot, who is already stressed out.
Confidence and belief in one’s self are some of the most powerful defenses against unnecessary stress. People with high levels of stress, that lead a sedentary lifestyle, usually have low self-esteem. A lot of the time this is because they don’t like the way they look physically. They are unsure of themselves, and become timid in the face of adversity. They tend to be afraid of failure, which in turn keeps them from even trying to reach their potential in life.
Athletes make it a habit of challenging themselves every day. Every workout is a challenge, a chance to surpass what their bodies were previously capable of. With each success comes a boost of confidence, a belief that they can, in fact, attain and surpass their goals. They feel better about themselves, and about life itself. When they do fall short of a goal, they may get frustrated but don’t look to it as a failure. Rather, they take the lessons learned to heart, and then apply them with a vengeance. Because of this, athletes tend to have higher confidence levels, and a stronger sense of self-worth. This in turn leads them to taking a more aggressive, head-on approach to life’s challenges.
It’s been a rough day and you need to burn some stress from your system! You decide that you need to do something; you’re just not sure what would be the best remedy for your current situation. Just as certain medicines are designed to treat specific ailments, there are some types of exercises you can perform to help you in relieving specific areas of tension and stress.
Anger can cause sudden bursts of rage, where we simply want to lash out and smash something. When angry, one usually dwells specifically on what made them angry, and it is fairly easy to stay focused on one event. Exercise involving short, controlled bursts of energy is optimum for combatting anger. That is why it is advisable that when angry, it is best to head to the weight room. Some things to keep in mind to optimize the effects:
1) Game Plan: Don’t come into the gym and not know what you are going to do. Come up with a game plan, decide what body parts you are going to work, and stick to it. Using a training notebook is advisable. Perform the same exercises, with the same amount of weight, as you would during a normal workout. Just because the anger has made you feel stronger, doesn’t mean that you are. Sticking with a game plan will help prevent injury, as well as keep you focused.
2) Attitude: Regardless of what kind of day you’ve had, the other patrons at the gym do not need to suffer the brunt of your bad attitude. It will only create hard feelings, and can lead to an unnecessary confrontation. Keep your attitude in check! And whatever you do, do not excessively yell or slam the weights down after each set. Not only will you look like a complete buffoon, the needless damage inflicted on the gym’s equipment will not be appreciated and in most places, not tolerated.
When done properly, weight training can have a very therapeutic effect on a bad attitude. The energy burned not only acts as an outlet for the anger, but proving to yourself that you are focused and are always in control can have a very positive effect as well.
Stress Ailment: Sorrow
Sorrow is probably the most difficult stress ailment to control. While anger actually gives one the feeling of extreme energy and power, sorrow has just the opposite effect. Sorrow saps one’s energy and strength creating feelings of weakness and helplessness. Cardio is a better solution than weight training when it comes to battling sorrow. Since sorrow tends to sap strength and power, it will be more difficult to weight train at the level one normally does. This in turn only adds to the low feelings. Doing an outdoor form of cardio is optimum since feelings of sorrow tend to make most of us want to avoid contact with other people. The outdoors also adds continuous changes to the scenery and atmosphere, which can help take the mind off of what caused ones troubles. The other big reason for wanting to exercise outdoors is because, once started, it is more difficult to quit, especially when you’ve already gone 10 miles on your mountain bike. Some things to help you when trying to overcome your sorrow feelings are:
1) Getting Started: The most difficult stage in treating sorrow with exercise is just getting started. Our motivation is at its lowest level when we are sad. This is where mental discipline and the ability to dig deep and find what truly motivates us come into play. Cut out pictures from HCM of what you ideally would like your body to resemble. Hang them on the fridge, on a wall at work, tape them somewhere that you know you will see everyday. Tape one to the bathroom mirror. It will be one of the first things you see when you get up in the morning. It helps remind you that you too can achieve this, like the person staring back at you. It gives one patience and motivation for the day.
2) Go For Distance: The best way to alleviate sorrow is to go at a steady pace, for long distances. It gives the feeling of “getting away from it all.” Also, no matter what we do, sorrow takes time to dissipate. The longer you go, the more energy you will burn, and the better you’ll feel when done. However, don’t over exert yourself to the point of exhaustion. This will only discourage you into not wanting to get up and do it again. Set short distance goals. Once you have that routine down, and feel like you could add more distance in your jog, do it. Surprise yourself; take a new route for a change of scenery. Reward yourself with some cold water at home with a squeeze of lime. It’s refreshing and it will help replenish your body with the water it has lost. Keeping hydrated is extremely important.
Though it is a difficult ailment to fight, with enough self-discipline and internal motivation, sorrow can be treated effectively. Just accomplishing a workout, in spite of feeling down, can be a motivator in and of itself. Jogging or working out with a friend or loved one is also great motivation and you can use each other as discipline.
General anxiety is the most common stress ailment we face. Our minds tend to race off in a hundred directions at the same time, and we cannot seem to stay focused on any one thing. The good news is that anxiety can be treated using both weight training and cardio. When wanting to use exercise to rid oneself of anxiety, it comes down to personal preference as to which type to do. The things to remember to help control anxiety are:
1) High Energy / Moderate Length: Regardless of which type of exercise you choose, you want to keep your intensity to where you are burning a lot of energy, at a pace that you can continue for a moderate period of time. If you are weight training, keep the weight fairly light, with lots of sets and repetitions. This will help tone your body without adding mass and the feeling of being “thick” or “husky”. If you are utilizing cardio, go at an intensity that you can maintain for about 35 to 45 minutes. Make sure to check your heart rate. Most gyms have a heart rate chart based on your age. Make sure you are within that zone. You can make changes to your routine to accommodate this, whether it’s increasing or decreasing the speed and time of your routine. Remember, you can hurt yourself and damage muscles if you over exert and don’t give your body time to recuperate.
2) Game Plan: As with any other workout day, it does little to come in without knowing what you are going to do while you are there. Reason being, anxiety can cause us to become “scatter-brained,” and it is extremely difficult to stay focused on the task at hand. Having a set plan of attack will help prevent this. If you like one machine or just jogging that is fine. But if you want to try other things, stair stepper, swimming, by all means, check it out. Ask the staff questions, find out what they think a good start would be for you. They are at your disposal. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. You will look more silly attempting something you don’t know much about, rather than asking someone who does right from the start.
Anxiety, while common, is actually fairly easy to control. As long as the right intensity and duration are applied, its effects can be short lived while the results on your body and mind are long lasting.
Stress is a daily part of our lives. While living a physically fit lifestyle will help prevent some stress from overcoming us, it is impossible to eliminate it completely. Our attitudes help us determine how we handle stress. Our attitudes, in turn, are influenced by our habits and the lifestyle we lead. Just being able to head to the gym after a bad day, instead of to the bar or the candy machine, is a huge step in the right direction. The challenges we face in life are not things we should dread. Instead of harboring feelings of anxiety and fear at every stumbling block, we should relish the challenge! Seek challenges at the gym and in life. Make them into something positive and not destructive. Look forward to the lessons learned, and continue to come back every time we falter. With the help of exercising and taking care of our physical and mental well-being, fear and anxiety are replaced with confidence, determination, and the belief in ourselves. All of us have extreme power and potential inside of ourselves. Only you have the power to control it, and make it happen. There is no “quick fix” to anything in life. The positive lifestyle you choose for yourself will not only change your outlook for the better, but will ultimately reflect positive energy on those around you. It is up to you to find yours and take it! Someday, someone may cut YOUR picture from the pages of HCM and hang it on their wall for motivation!