Stress management and exercise. A dynamic duo!

Stress management and exercise go well together. You may be saying, “but Lynda I am already stressed out how the heck can I fit more like exercise into my day?”

My response…

If we could give every individual the right amount of nourishment and exercise, not too little and not too much, we would have found the safest way to health.” 

Hippocrates

Before starting any exercise regimen please consult your healthcare provider.

How do stress management and exercise go together? According to the folks over at Harvard health exercise reduces the levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline while also increasing beneficial chemicals in the brain called endorphins. Endorphins help you to feel less pain and increase your mood. Check out the full article here.

So what is the right amount of exercise? Well it will be different for everyone based on ability as well as current level of activity, but essentially for good health we are talking about 20 minutes each day as a minimum.

In fact the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends 150 minutes per week of moderate activity OR 75 minutes per week of intense activity OR a blend of the two. They have great examples of what constitutes each over at their site. Check it out here.

If you are not currently meeting this guideline set by the American Heart Association don’t despair. You can start exercising for less time at lower intensity and gradually increase your efforts over time.

The key is to stick with it.

I usually recommend choosing a start date and then assessing where you are physically. AHA defines moderate exercise as 2.5 mile an hour walking pace (24 minutes per mile) or biking less than 10 miles per hour (about a mile every 6.5 minutes).

Carve out a 30 minute period of time and find a treadmill (or a sidewalk) or bicycle (stationary or regular) and take a stroll or a ride. Then…
  • Start a stop watch (or just note the time) and begin walking or peddling.
  • Tune into your breathing.
    • When you notice your breathing increase in effort, but you can still comfortably talk, that’s moderate exercise.
    • If you start to huff and puff and can no longer speak a sentence that is vigorous exercise and you’ll want to slow it down a bit.
  • Once you’ve reached your limit write town how long you were at it.

Be honest with yourself and remember self judgement is your foe. The purpose of this is to assess where you are not give yourself a lot of grief over not being further along. It’s hard to get anywhere when someone is standing in your way telling you that you’re a failure. Most of the time that voice is our own slowing us down and increasing our stress.

Once you have the information on your current ability you can start to increase up to the recommendation over time.
  • Let’s say that you can comfortably walk at a moderate pace for about 10 minutes.
  • Do it daily until it’s a habit and it begins to feel easy. This should happen in about a week.
  • Then start increasing the time by about 10 percent of the total each week.
  • By week 8 you should be able to comfortably do the exercise for about 20 minutes.

Start to notice the effects of regular exercise on your overall stress levels. Are you…

  • Sleeping better?
  • Has your appetite come under better control?
  • Are you less easily irritated?

Most will notice a decrease in the amount of stress they feel day to day over time. But to notice it, you need to tune in and listen to what your mind and body are telling you.

Let me know what you discover.

Stress Management and eating habits, an intersection.

Managing stress by looking at your eating habits may seem odd. However, when you consider how much time you spend obtaining, preparing, and eating food it starts to come into focus. And that’s before considering how the foods you choose impact your brain and body.

Let’s face it the standard American diet needs some re-evaluation. Plates of food like the one above are tasty and easy to find, but they rack up the calories, fast! And truth be told the foods above are not even among the worst many are consuming.

Most of use really like these kinds of foods, but to achieve optimal health these meals need to be limited. You can dive into exercise and rack up hours of sweat, but even for avid exercisers these kind of meals can be problematic. The hard to swallow truth is that most people can eat beyond any exercise program.

“Garbage in garbage out”  ~George Fuechsel

Stress and Food?

I started thinking about the intersection of eating habits and stress more after watching Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 film Supersize Me. The goal of the film was to show the deleterious effects of eating fast food every day on the body. Morgan set a plan to eat fast food three times a day (specifically McDonald’s) for thirty days. If he was asked if he wanted to “super size it” he had to say yes. He also set as part of the challenge to eat around the menu (he couldn’t just eat the same thing every day).

Where the stress shows up.

What got my attention wasn’t just the significant amount of weight gained during the filming, but that he talked about how his mood was awful and he felt physically ill much of the time. He talked about feeling lethargic, irritable, and depressed. After a meal he would perk up for a bit only to crash a few hours later. More concerning was the change in lab work he had done prior to starting experiment which showed significant increase in cholesterol and indications of fatty liver when repeated at the end. All in just 30 days of eating a fast food diet.

What can you do?

That food can influence your emotions is really gaining traction. Check out an article from Harvard health here.

So it’s kind of a no brainer (pun intended) that eating a lot of processed foods won’t help you manage your stress better. Of course when we are stressed we often reach for easy and fast options.

Eating is just one aspect of stress management. Don’t forget to review other aspects to stress management here..

Stress and eating.

No matter how effective our stress management, we will all have those days when we can’t catch our breath and that’s where spending a little time looking at how eating and stress may intersect for you can be helpful.

  • Consider how eating and stress intersect for you.
  • Eat regularly.
  • Weed out the junk from the cupboards.
  • Pre-pack snack bags or even whole meals.
  • Say no to the easy option and go with the slightly more difficult one.

Consider how eating (or not eating) may be adding to your stress.

  • Do you arrive home at the end of a stressful day and have less energy to make more healthful meals and then grab the easiest option?
  • Do you feel stressed because you go all day without eating and subsequently arrive home stressed and hungry?
  • Do you take the time to shop for healthful foods or are you loading up on quick convenience options?

Eat regularly.

Look at your eating habits. As a counselor I am often struck by how poorly people can treat their bodies. I often hear about the habit of not eating until very late in the day. It’s hard to feel at your best if your body is struggling to find the fuel to keep you going. Fad diets aside, the demands of your brain may require more frequent eating.

Weed out the Junk!

Imagine heading to your pantry and finding only healthy options rather than bags of chips and sweets! Weeding out the junk in your cupboards leaves you with less temptation when you have that stressful day. This translates into fewer food binges that can leave you feeling Blah!

Pre-packing meals and snacks.

Pre-packing meals and snacks to grab when you are on the go will help you stay on track even when you are experiencing increased stressors. While this requires a bit more effort once you are in the habit it can reduce the stress that can come when feeling hungry and not having access to healthful food options.

Just say NO!

Saying no to the easy options will help build the mental muscle to stick with your convictions and may also help keep stress levels lower. Of course planning ahead and having healthful options on hand will help this occur a bit less often.

“If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!”

Benjamin Franklin

What about my burger fix?

I am not saying that all fast, fun, quick, foods are off the table. But there is value in knowing what you are taking in and making that a clear choice rather than feeling backed into the vending machine only to make the fast and convenient impulse that leaves you feeling worse.

Notice I have not talked much about weight. Nutrition is important no matter what you weigh. That said decreasing your stress by choosing to eat more whole foods and stepping away from processed foods as much as possible could lead to weight loss.

You might also find that what you start to think of as “fast food” starts to look a little different.

Try looking at your habits and making a change or two and let me know what you think!