Exercise for a Stress-Free Life

Updated: Sep 30, 2019


Needless to say, life can be stressful. Whether it's not having enough time during the day or having too much extra time, stress affects everyone. As a self-employed military spouse, most of my time is seemingly wasted driving to and from daycare, making dinner, walking the dog, and other mundane daily tasks. The businesswoman inside of me sees anything that takes me away from work as a "waste of time". Though it is awesome to be able to spend time with my kids, I can't help but feel like there's not enough hours in the day for me to do everything I need to make my business grow.


The Worst Thing for Your Body is Stress

Our bodies handle stress in different ways. We are programmed to handle stress in our day-to-day lives. Stress can actually motivate us to become better versions of ourselves, driving us to finish a project by a deadline or motivating us to learn new skills. Stress isn't the enemy here. It is only when we get overstressed that our body starts shutting down. All of a sudden, that sink full of dishes makes you break down into tears. The thought of meeting up with friends on the weekend throws you into an anxiety attack because you "don't have time" anymore. These things used to be easy to deal with, but due to overstress, they now seem impossible.


Stress effects on your body:

- Headache

- Muscle tension

- Chest pain

- Fatigue

- Low libido

- Stomach issues


The Mind Suffers Too

My martial arts training has help me deal with a screaming toddler and a crying newborn at the same time. Before I started training for martial arts, I was angry. I would react to situations at the drop of a hat, acting way before a thinking. Martial arts and yoga has taught me to take a deep breath, and that this moment is only temporary.


Stress effects on the mind:

- Anxiety disorders

- Restlessness or insomnia

- Unmotivated/unfocused

- Feeling overwhelmed

- Irritable and/or angry

- Depression


Stress Changes Who You Are

Long term stress takes its toll on our personalities. Someone who once identified as carefree or fun-loving can easily become known as cynical under long term stress.


Stress effects on behavior:

- Eating disorders (over or under eating)

- Angry outbursts

- Drug or alcohol use

- Tobacco or vaping use

- Social withdrawal

- Little to no exercise


How Does Exercise Help Destress?

Stress comes from all sides of life. Whether it’s being lazy or being overworked, life is hard for everyone. When I had my first daughter, I found it extremely difficult to reshape my schedule to fit all of my martial arts training, client training, home life and administrative work into a schedule based around a newborn. With my husband deployed, it was only me and my daughter to fight the world together. Working out helped me avoid the nasty effects of postpartum depression and even gave me a reason to get back into a daily routine.

Exercise is a proven form of stress relief. Whether it's yoga, tap dancing or boxing, exercise is as good for the mind as it is the body.


Anger Management

Working out helps you become less irritable and angry. What I lovingly call "throwing up some weight", lifting in the gym has helped me recenter myself on days I feel the world is collapsing in on me.



Weightlifting can be a mindless activity, where you just follow your program that you've already written (or found on the internet). There's little to no thinking about what to do next because it's already planned out! This mindless workout helps you destress by taking your mind off of everything.


Some dumbbells have helped me to tame my anger, but the best fitness exercise for anger management is martial arts. In my personal experience, being able to take aggression out on a heavy bag or Thai pads really helps control angry emotions. Whether it’s hitting a heavy bag, or live sparring, my practice of Muay Thai and Brazilian jiu jitsu definitely helped get aggression out in the best way. Instead of bottling up anger or taking it out on others, I would do repetitive four count drills on the heavy bag until I was dripping with sweat. The repetitive, mindless drills brought me to a state of meditation, calming my mind and strengthening my body.

Help Control Calorie Intake

People will sometimes resort to eating when stressed out. This "stress eating" is usually indulging in "comfort foods"; foods high in fat, empty calories, and sugar. This can easily cause fat to accumulate and your weight to skyrocket. You gain weight when you take in more calories than you burn.


Exercise is an amazing tool for healthy weight loss. Workouts help your metabolism work harder, therefore burning more calories throughout the day. This leads to a larger calorie deficit at the end of the day. The calorie deficit is what makes weight loss possible. The more calories you take in, the more you have to expend.

The highest burning calorie exercises are explosive movement exercises such as:


- Squat jumps

- Box jumps

- High knees

- Sprints

- Burpees


These moves will also help increase your cardio endurance, though cardio is not the “end all be all“ of weight loss.


Most people associate exercise with weight loss. However, the cool thing is that it can be used for weight gain as well. I have come across clients that have trouble gaining weight or remembering to eat throughout the day due to their hectic life schedule (especially those with kids!). On days they work out, they actually feel hungry throughout the day and therefore are able to feed themselves the proper nutrition. 


Restless No More

I was pretty fit when starting out my pregnancy journey. I was a trained MMA fighter, working out six days a week with the seventh day use for active recovery such as yoga or jogging. There was not a day that would go by where I did not exercise in some way, shape or form.

Through the entire pregnancy, I was on my feet exercising doing squats and push-ups until the day before I gave birth.


My second pregnancy was a different story. Seven months into my pregnancy, I had such extreme pelvic pain, that I was unable to do any lower body exercises without vomiting from the pain. I was frustrated at having to change my workout routine, but I was determined to stay fit. I couldn't focus on core exercises since I was in my third trimester, and I had to avoid any exercise that moved my pelvis or used my pelvic floor. I switched to this (some-what ridiculous) five day upper body workout:



Interestingly, my body hated not working out. Since it was so used to a higher level of fitness, when I stopped working out, my body didn’t know what to do. Though I was still doing upper body exercises, my leg muscles were not used to the lack of daily stress and I developed restless leg syndrome. I literally couldn’t sit still or sleep because my leg muscles felt twitchy, unable to get the stimulation they needed. Eventually, my leg muscles adjusted to the lower fitness level, but for a few weeks, it was almost unbearable.


Get Back Your Motivation

Exercising can help wake you up and get extra blood flow to the brain. It is shown that people that exercise are smarter because of it! (you can see the research for it here). Doing an intense workout can leave you feeling energized and more awake than before your work out, having a positive effect on your work projects. Having the motivation to drive to the gym is half the battle; once you're there, it's all downhill from there!



Feel Less Overwhelmed

Any exercise that utilizes breathing techniques will help with emotions of anxiety and feeling overwhelmed. Activities like yoga, martial arts put your mind into a state of meditation when you feel unable to slow down your thoughts. Isometric movements like planks, headstands, wall sits etc. can also be used if you are not into group settings. Number one focus in yoga is working on breathing techniques in order to activate your core effectively.  This focus on breathing takes you outside of your own head and makes you consciously aware of where you are in space and time. This is the same as meditation, letting go of harmful thoughts and focusing on something real and in the present, such as you actively breathing in and out.


Stave Off Depression and Become More Social

Postpartum depression is a very real thing to new mothers. It is the most common of any postpartum symptom. Having a new baby that is completely dependent on you can be hard to deal with, especially if you are on your own. Recovering from childbirth is the perfect storm to create postpartum depression. Long bouts of being secluded from the outside world, poor sleep schedule, and the changing hormones in your body almost welcome you to depression's door. After having my first daughter, my birth doula told me that the only other time your body goes through such extreme hormonal changes as it does after childbirth, is death! For the past 40 weeks, your body had the highest levels of progesterone and estrogen. After birth, those hormones drop to their lowest levels, creating the "Baby Blues". The "Baby Blues" is a period of anxiety, irritability, fatigue and sadness caused by the hormones changing in your body after birth.


Exercise releases endorphins which help get you into a better mood. It also helps get you back into a daily routine, which is great for creating a sense of control. My anxiety was through the roof when I felt like I couldn't do any of the "pre-baby" things I wanted to do. However, setting aside time during the day to exercise put me back in control of my schedule and did wonders for my self esteem. Taking time to exercise and take care of your mental health as well as your physical health is crucial!


Exercise Away Muscle Tension and Fatigue

Muscle tension is in all-too-familiar side effect of too much stress. Most people will carry stress in their necks or shoulders, causing headaches as a side effect of tense muscles. Foam rolling, stretching, yoga, and any other type of movement based exercise will help with stress relief and muscle relaxation. Recovery techniques can also be used before or after exercise. Foam rolling, stretching, trigger point massage all help release tension in areas of the body that would normally hold knots and stress.


Summary

From Spartan races to Boot Camp classes, competitions to walking groups, fitness has the tendency of bringing people together for a greater good in the name of health. Almost every aspect of stress related illnesses can be combated with exercise in one way or another. Stress happens every day in all of our lives, but it is our own choice to suffer from it. Give yourself the tools to tame that stress effectively and lead the best life you can.

Ready to take the first step towards a stress-free lifestyle? Click here!

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