As Americans, we tend to invite a lot of stress into our lives. It seems like every day a new bill arrives, we have to get the kids to basketball practice, our boss wanted that report yesterday, and the list goes on. While under certain circumstances stress can be good, most modern stress is detrimental to our health.
It is important to understand how your body responds to stress in order to help alleviate it. Thousands of years ago, the stress response was a vital part of survival. If you were walking in the woods and a bear jumped out at you, you experienced a lot of stress! This would cause your body to pump out huge amounts of adrenaline and cortisol, the stress hormones. These hormones tighten your muscles, accelerate heart rate, raise blood pressure and get the body ready for emergency action. This is great if you are about to get eaten by a bear; it’s not so great if you just opened your credit-card bill.
The problem is we have lots of stress in our lives, but it does not come from animals trying to eat us. If the man in the woods outruns the bear, then the stress is gone and he can go about his day. Nowadays, we have to contend with the same things day after day, causing our stress hormones to stay elevated constantly.
Over time, these hormones can cause physical changes within the body. I’m sure you have seen the infomercials that explain how cortisol is linked to “belly fat.” While products on the market do not work, high cortisol levels are partly responsible for adding body fat. They will also destroy lean muscle mass, which will slow down your metabolism. It can also impact your immune system, bone density and even the reproductive system.
Similarly, high adrenaline levels have been linked to increased blood pressure, headaches, an elevated heart rate and many other symptoms.
In order to fight against these stress hormones and their side effects, we must make a few changes to our lives. For most people, one of the easiest things they can change is how much sleep they get. Getting a full night’s sleep is a very easy way to naturally decrease the amount of excess cortisol and adrenaline in your system. You can also set aside time in your day to relax or meditate. Taking 15-20 minutes to clear your mind can make a very large impact.
Of course, you can always begin an exercise program. Regular exercise has been clinically shown to significantly reduce cortisol and adrenaline production in the body. You also get the benefits of improving your immune system, increasing metabolism, improving your blood pressure and much more. The most important part of a stress-free exercise program is consistency. It does not have to be a particularly strenuous workout, but it does need to be consistent. Some people may choose to go for a walk in Rittenhouse Square, others may ride their bikes along the Schuylkill and still others may lift weights at the gym. All of these are great stress reducers.
Stress is a part of everyday life. We know we cannot get rid of it, but we can try to manage and reduce its effects on our bodies. Start by incorporating more time for sleep, relaxation breaks or an exercise routine. As these become habits, you will start to feel a difference. This will become obvious as things that used to stress you out are no longer crises but simply challenges.
Jared Carter, CSCS, is the owner of Move Forward Fitness Personal Training Studio, 1616 Walnut St. Visit www.moveforwardfitness.com to sign up for his free newsletter, or reach him at (215) 399-3541 or [email protected].