By Eddie O’Connor, Ph.D., CMPC
You don’t need this article to tell you the benefits of exercise on your stress levels (but I will reinforce them anyway). Physical activity increases endorphin production in the body. Those feel-good pain-relieving hormones. And it’s good for your brain. Physical activity increases blood flow, which increases our cognitive capacity and speed. So, we think better. Focusing on exercise means we are not focusing on our stress, so there is a fantastic mental break from stress too, plus the positive meditative effect of focusing on the exercise, in the moment, as we do it. Your self-confidence likely gets a boost with the earned results of a better, healthier body.
But while exercise helps stress, can stress help you exercise? Your experience is probably going to tell you “no.” Ever been too tired to go to the gym and skip it? Ever prioritize more work or responsibility over your workout? Or be so fatigued that you’d rather zone out in front of the TV or phone, maybe eat a snack to feel better instead? Of course, you have. In fact, it is more likely that stress actually hurts your workout. Besides the decreased motivation to go, there is the real fatigue you feel even if you attend, decreasing the quality of your workout—especially if you are not recovering well with adequate sleep. There isn’t one major organ or process in the body that isn’t enhanced by sleep, or impaired without enough of it. (Get at least 8 hours to help both regulate your stress and improve your workouts.) Stress can cause muscle tension, increasing risk of injury and slowing tissue repair—which leads to longer recovery times. Stress makes it harder to lose weight and can increase food cravings. Those extra pounds don’t help us move well.
But despite these facts, I can think there is one way that stress can help get you moving.
It’s this: Notice how bad feeling stressed out feels. Rather than repeatedly numbing out, or working harder and longer in futile attempts to escape it (do you ever really catch up on everything?), notice how you feel. It’s terrible. It’s unhealthy. It turns us into not-so-nice people, crabby and irritable with others. Our performance in everything declines. And our coping strategies of snacking, sleeping less, and sedentary “resting” just make it worse.
And then realize that you have a choice. There is something you can do. It won’t feel good at first. You will be tired and sore and you might sweat a lot. But if you don’t want to be stressed, working out (or any physical activity) WILL help you. This isn’t my opinion. Its science.
So, the question is, are you willing to choose some discomfort in service of decreasing your stress and getting healthier? Stress can motivate your workout if you realize that working out is one of the most effective ways to reduce stress, and then engage exercise with your whole heart and mind to beat it.
About Eddie O’Connor
Dr. Eddie O’Connor is a Clinical and Sport Psychologist at Mary Free Bed Sports Rehabilitation in Grand Rapids, MI. He is a Fellow and Certified Mental Performance Consultant through the Association forApplied Sport Psychology—the largest organization for sport psychology consultants and professionals.
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