Health is the noblest good for mortal man, the next to this is beauty, the third riches acquired without guile, the fourth the enjoyment of social pleasures in the company of young friends. - Simonides
Few realize that exercise and stress work in unison through a positive feedback loop to promote health and well being. In order to leverage the positive effects of both exercise and stress one should not exercise too much nor be stressed too often. Both stimuli are great for ones overall health in small intense doses. The dose makes the poison. The adage stimulate don’t annihilate rings true in this situation as one needs to stimulate not only their muscles, but their mind as well to achieve true well being.
Doing things in short intense spurts is an approach that is not only lindy, but highly effective in ensuring ones health and fitness goals are achieved during times of chronic stress, anxiety, and uncertainty. In short - deadlift, squat, bench, sprint repeat. Sounds easy, right? Unfortunately, it is not. The form of exercise and relaxation one chooses is highly dependent on what one reads, hears, or sees. This is why CrossFit is popular, marathon participation is up, and people fling themselves into mud during a Tough Mudder. We are all being told that more is better in all domains. We are living during a time of abundance and information has not been spared from the bloat. Information is both cheap and easy to find. So, how does one discern the signal from the sea of noise and adopt habits that promote health and well being vs a health and wellness plan that is simply consumerism applied to exercise and calm?
Exercise is a form of physical stress. Can physical stress relieve mental stress? Yes. Mens sana in corpore sano - the ancients thought that a person could only have a healthy mind in a healthy body that the two are inseparable. This connection is evident in the literature espousing the strong relationship between the brain and the gut. If one is unable to cultivate a healthy physical body it is nearly impossible to have a clear mind. Not only is exercise, or movement in general essential to ones health, what one is consuming is as well. Eat clean, train intently, and relax fully.
All Disease Begins in The Gut.- Hippocrates
Rest and relaxation.
A little R&R anyone? It's such a common expression that it has become a trope. And although rest really can be relaxing, the pithy phrase causes many to overlook the fact that exercise can also be relaxing. It's true for most forms of physical activity as well as for specific relaxation exercises.
For example: a person may be in a state of relaxation or flow when bench pressing 400lbs while another can achieve the same state by practicing hot yoga. The trick is, that the task cannot be overly taxing on ones body. The person that benches 400lbs gets into a flow state and enjoys pressing the weight, while he may not be flexible enough to derive a relaxing experience from 90 minutes of hot yoga and vice versa for the person who enjoys hot yoga. Its relative, Aristotle was right again…
Breath, stretch, meditate
We can do more than what we think." It's a belief system that I have adopted and it has become my motto. There is more than meets the eye and unless you are willing to experience new things, you'll never realize your full potential. - Wim Hof
Even without formal meditation and controlled breathing, the muscle stretching of yoga can reduce stress. But if yoga isn’t something enjoyable, simple breathing exercises can be of great use. Rapid, shallow, erratic breathing is a common response to stress. Slow, deep, regular breathing is a sign of relaxation. One can learn to control your respirations so they mimic relaxation; the effect, in fact, will be relaxing. In through the nose out through the mouth….
Here's an example:
1. Breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose. 4 count.
2. Hold your breath briefly. 2 count.
3. Exhale slowly through the mouth. 4 count.
4. Repeat the sequence three to five times, concentrating on breathing deeply and slowly.
The above is an example of box breathing, which is a great way to restore a sense of calmness in nearly any situation. Deep breathing is easy to learn and implement on the fly. One can do it at any time, in any place. One can use deep breathing to help dissipate stress as it occurs. Focus on the breath.
Bodily exercise can help relax the mind, and mental gymnastics can, too. Most often, that means talking through issues with a trusted third party, but one can also do it by harnessing the power of the mind to reduce stress. It can be as simple as keeping a daily journal, practicing 10 minutes of meditation, or sitting in a sauna for 20 minutes. Meditation exercises have helped many people reduce stress and gain perspective.
Meditation is a prime example of the synergy of mind and body. Mental stress can speed the heart and raise the blood pressure; meditation can actually reverse the physiological signs of stress. Scientific studies of Indian yoga masters demonstrate that meditation can, in fact, slow the heart rate, lower the blood pressure, reduce the breathing rate, diminish the body's oxygen consumption, reduce blood adrenaline levels, and change skin temperature.
It is important for a person to remain healthy and sound because a healthy mind dwells in a healthy body. -Rig Veda
Although meditation is an ancient Eastern religious technique, one doesn’t have to to adopt all the ancient rituals and practices. The beauty of the practice is that it is malleable and can be adapted to anyone or any situation. In fact, your best guide to meditation is not an Indian spiritualist but a person on Youtube or an app on your phone. Once you find your guru, select a time and place that will be free of distractions and interruption.
Huffing and Puffing
Does anyone still have volumes of VHS tapes on aerobics? Quick tangent - for my younger readers, aerobics videos used to be stored on a physical tapes that one would shove into a VCR and follow along on TV. Spandex was hot then, its hot again, no?
Exercise is key for ones mental clarity and for the regulation of many processes in the body from the gut to the heart. For many, the first steps are the hardest, and in the beginning, exercise will be more work than fun. But as one gets into shape, one begins to tolerate exercise, then enjoy it, and finally depend on it. Pick a form of exercise that is enjoyable, there are myriad options to choose from. Varied forms and intensity can be found by flaneuring, lifting weights, doing yoga, sprinting, cycling, jump roping, rowing, and having sex.
Exercise will bring tremendous changes to one’s body, one’s metabolism, and one’s heart. It has a unique capacity to exhilarate and relax, to provide stimulation and calm, to counter depression and dissipate stress. It's a common experience among endurance athletes and has been verified in clinical trials that have successfully used exercise to treat anxiety disorders and clinical depression.
The mental benefits of exercise have a neuro-chemical basis. Exercise reduces levels of the body's stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body's natural painkillers and mood elevators. Endorphins are responsible for the "runner's high" or the “pump” and for the feelings of relaxation and positivity that accompany hard training.
Take this well to heart: you must gain control of your habits; First over stomach, then sleep, and then luxury, and anger. What brings you shame, do not unto others, nor by yourself. The highest of duties is honor of self. - Pythagoras
Behavioral factors also contribute to the mental benefits of exercise. As one decreases belly fat, increases stamina, and bolstered strength ones self image improves. Through exercise one earns a sense of mastery and control, of pride and self-confidence. One gains vigor and energy that carries over to succeeding in other areas such as playing with ones children, showing affection to ones spouse, focusing at work, and thinking more clearly. Exercises benefits will touch nearly all aspects of ones life, creating a happier and healthier lifestyle is key to flourishing.
Exercise and sports more broadly allow one to get away from day to day stressors and turn inward to improve oneself. This is how, for many, exercise is a meditative practice.
All men need leisure. - St. Thomas Aquinas
Exercise is not one size fits all as nearly any form of exercise will be of benefit to the individual. Whether it be targeted weight training like squats, overhead press, or pulldowns the high repetitions can be of benefit from the movement and tension that is exerted onto the body. The feeling of a pump or the blood flowing through ones veins is an intoxicating and stress relieving feeling.
Often, underrated outside of the 10k step fanatics is walking. A 20-minute stroll can clear the mind and reduce stress, step outside with no clear aim or goal and go. But some people prefer vigorous workouts that limit stress and get the heart pumping Sprints are a force multiplier when added to walking, so if one can alternate sessions of long walks and short intense sprints the positive effects will compound. One can perform sprints outside, on a treadmill, on a rower, on an assault bike, on an elliptical, etc. Pick your tool and go. One popular sprint rest method is the Tabata method, which is a great way to pack in intensity in a short amount of time.
Self discipline and accountability are things that alleviate stress through the elimination of excess. Modernity is filled with abundance and little self discipline, this is not an ideal set up for those trying to lead a life of health and happiness. However, modernity affords us many ways to track and optimize what we do through advances in technology, such as wearables, applications, and measurement tools.
Whether one uses their watch, chest strap, or app, tracking ones progress and set backs allows one to continually make the progress they desire. Self examination is the key, no one else will hold one accountable except oneself. I have used many tools throughout the years and have had varying success due to time, complexity, and comfort.
Simplicity is needed, one does not want something complex standing in the way of their health and happiness. That is why I have partnered with Span, who is sponsoring this post. Span provides data driven health coaching through the ease of an application that is both easy to set up and easy to use. Its simplicity and design make it a great tool when someone needs an outlet for coaching or tracking.
Regular physical activity keeps you healthy as it reduces stress. There are also programatic and progressive approaches to training and exercise that have myriad health benefits. Some of the most common forms follow linear progressions, we will discuss the autoregulatory exercisemodel, whichcan also reduce stress.
Auto regulatory exercises are a group of techniques designed to replace the spiral of stress with a cycle of repose. Auto-regulation is a form of periodization that adjusts to one’s adaptations on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis. This type of periodization allows one to increase strength at their own pace by tailoring the program to ones strength or performance on a daily basis Individuals increase strength or respond to training stimuli at different rates, so it is possible that the use of auto-regulation may maximize the amount of strength gained over a training cycle.
This model is different from linear periodization or set plans because the program is malleable and adaptive based on the individuals performance from workout to workout. Rather than stating one needs to do X,Y, and Z for 10 reps no matter what APRE allows one to modify the training in real time to account for variables like lack of sleep or elevated stress.
Stress comes in many forms and produces many symptoms. Mental symptoms range from anguish and impatience to restlessness and insomnia, anger and hostility, or sensations of dread, foreboding, and even panic. Many people are feeling this way on a daily basis. So, uncovering how one can alleviate these feelings through a healthy lifestyle is a game changer.
The greatest of follies is to sacrifice health for any other kind of happiness. - Arthur Schopenhauer
Mental stress can also produce physical symptoms. Muscles are tense, resulting in fidgetiness, tense facial expressions, headaches, or neck and back pain. The mouth is dry, producing unquenchable thirst or perhaps the sensation of a lump in the throat that makes swallowing difficult. Clenched jaw muscles can produce jaw pain and headaches. The skin can be pale, sweaty, and clammy. Intestinal symptoms range from "butterflies" to heartburn, cramps, or diarrhea.
Frequent urination may be a bother. A pounding pulse is common, as is chest tightness. Rapid breathing is also typical, and may be accompanied by sighing or repetitive coughing. In extreme cases, hyperventilation can lead to tingling of the face and fingers, muscle cramps, lightheadedness, and even fainting. How can one be calm if the body is never in a state of rest? Relax ones mind, let the conscious be free as you breath, stretch, and push yourself into a restorative state.
The physical symptoms of stress are themselves distressing. In fact, the body's response to stress can feel so bad that it produces additional mental stress. During the stress response, then, mind and body can amplify each other's distress signals, creating a vicious cycle of tension and anxiety.
Because the root cause of stress is emotional, it is best controlled by gaining insight, reducing life problems that elicit stress and modifying behavior. Control of ones stress is contingent on the body as well and that is why physical fitness plays such an integral role in mental health. One cannot have a clear mind if the physical body is in knots. Just as the physical body is essential to mental health, ones mental health is essential to ones physical health. One needs to have a clear mind to reduce stress, increase focus, and alleviate tension.
When one can optimally focus on the task at hand, whether that be a sprint, a stretch, or a breath one is able to fully achieve their goals. Being calm is a power that has been heralded since the Roman Empire.
Stay calm and serene regardless of what life throws at you. - Marcus Aurelius
Adoption of a health and fitness model that allows one to maintain calm throughout not only exercise, but day to day activities is what is truly needed to hedge the constant stressors one encounters each day. So, read an essay like this one, download an app, watch a video, or use a platform like Span as guides down the path of health and happiness. Simply, focus on the breath, lean into the stretch, maximize the sprint, and push it to the limit. Health is wealth.