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Exercise for Stress Reduction

separator Most people living in the world today-or at least in the world of going to work, caring for children, keeping up with the mortgage and other bills-experience stress. It's a fact of life. Evidence shows that stress can cause a lot of health problems. More and more studies indicate that stress can weaken your immune system, increase your risk of heart trouble, raise cholesterol, keep your blood sugar too high, cause weight problems, skin problems…the list goes on.

There are several approaches to stress management. Some of these include making changes in your life to remove stressors, seeking mental health counseling and expanding your spiritual horizons. These are great options and can provide good stress relief. But don't forget one activity that can also bring pleasure to your life while reducing stress: exercise.

Regular exercise: A key to stress management
Exercise can be a mood booster. It
  • Relaxes tense muscles
  • Helps you sleep better, making you better equipped to face the stresses of your day
  • Releases endorphins, adrenaline, serotonin and dopamines, chemicals that give you a sense of well-being
A husband and wife team (he's a cardiologist, she's a science writer), Mitchell and Carol Krucoff, have written a book called Healing Moves in which they suggest that we try to think of exercise as "recess." We needed play time as children, and we still need it as adults. Remember the days when you couldn't wait to rush out the door to play after sitting at your desk? We often still want to rush out the door, but too many of us rush to our cars, then home to have dinner and watch television. As adults, we still need to stretch our muscles, get our hearts pumping, breathe fresh air and take a break from our responsibilities.

Consider some of these ideas as you explore ways to reduce stress by adding exercise to your life:

Don't confuse work activities with stress-reducing exercise. It's true that if you're a mail carrier you're getting more exercise at work than if you have a desk job. But to get a stress-reducing benefit from exercise, you need to choose an activity that's separate from the work you do all day long. Chasing after children, using the stairs at work, and running the vacuum cleaner are good ways to keep burning calories throughout the day, but they're not going to do much about reducing stress. Instead, you need activities that take your mind away from the daily grind.

Keep it varied. Many people get bored if they do the same activity day after day. And getting bored puts you at risk of giving up. Mix it up. For example, take a yoga class one night a week, go for a walk a few times per week and maybe play racquetball with a friend regularly.

Remember activities you enjoyed as a child. Chances are, you'll still like them. Was ballet a lot of fun for you? Take dance lessons. Did you love to go skating? Adults can do that too. Did you enjoy competitive sports? Check the local YMCA, health club or similar organization to look into group activities.

Schedule it in and keep it regular. This can be the hardest part. Only you can figure out how to fit regular exercise into your schedule. One thing you need to face is that if your days already seem too crowded without exercise, you probably need to give something up. That could mean not having dinner after work with friends as often, trying to cut back on working late, giving up going out to lunch sometimes or spending less time watching television. If you have children, see what you can do to swap childcare with other parents to give yourself some time on your own.

What kind is best?
What kind of exercise is best for stress reduction? For many people, repeating the same motion for a period of time can have an effect that's similar to meditation. Swimming laps, walking, running and cycling are rhythmic exercises that can provide this effect.

On the other hand, some people enjoy exercises that focus on the breath and fluid movement, such as yoga and t'ai chi. Others might want to play tennis or dance the tango.

The main thing is to find things you like and commit to doing them regularly.

C. Krucoff, M. Krucoff. Healing Moves. Harmony Books, New York, New York, 2000; F. Pashkow and C. Libov. The Women's Heart Book. Hyperion, New York, New York, 10023, 2001.
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