Manage Stress with Exercise
Managing stress is like strumming to the strings of a guitar. If there is no tension, the strings remain almost silent. With too much tension, the strings produce unsettling tones and may even break. The right amount of tension is the key to making good music. Similarly, our minds and bodies attempt to find the right balance when under stress. A powerful strategy to achieve that balance is integrating exercise and relaxation strategies into our daily lives. This is important for adults and teens alike. We must prepare our children to integrate exercise into their lives as we guide them towards healthy, productive futures.
Exercise Affects Hormones
An understanding of the different hormones allows us to take action to achieve the right balance. Sometimes hormones help the body respond to danger, while other times hormones calm the body down. While fear releases adrenaline, exercise and relaxation release endorphins and other calming brain chemicals.
When stressed, a rush of adrenaline puts the body on alert and prepares it to run from “tigers” — or modern dangers. Blood rushes from the belly to the legs so we can sprint. This creates that tingling sensation known as butterflies! The heart beats faster and breathing intensifies to help oxygenated blood flow. Our pupils dilate to let in light so we can see while running. We can’t think clearly because we’re not supposed to negotiate with the tiger. Empathy is reduced when adrenaline surges because we’re not supposed to sit with the tiger to try to understand his point of view.
While few run from tigers these days, there are certainly other things that provoke the same physical responses. Hormones can save our lives, or they can be counterproductive. For example, if our teens elevate a math test or argument with a friend to the “tiger” level, they can’t focus on studying, resolve conflict, or do much else. This is because the body and brain are focused on fleeing. It’s important that we make sure our teens understand this concept — that a test or argument are not real tigers. Once they recognize this, we can support them to get moving in order to channel those hormones elsewhere.
We can teach our teens that the first thing to do when sensing a “tiger” is to remind themselves that they are not really in danger. This works well when relatively calm. But in times of greatest stress, when imaginary tigers are stalking, they’ve got to listen to the body. Adrenaline is shouting, “Hey, get moving!” Instincts tell them to fight or take flight. By standing still, stress hormones re-circulate, unused and confused about the lack of attention. Anxiety builds with the continued presence of adrenaline because the body thinks, “The tiger’s still here!!” With exercise, we communicate to our bodies that we have escaped.
Follow the Body’s Signals
A key solution to managing stress lies in paying attention to and following the messages the body is sending. It makes biological sense for a starting point of stress management to be exercise. Unfortunately, it is too often considered a waste of time. People don’t realize that the body performs more efficiently and focuses more intensely after exercise. It is not a luxury, it is precisely what the body needs to function at its best.
School gives an opportunity to teach this lesson to teens. If your teens are cramming for a test and feeling overwhelmed, that’s the time to work out the surging adrenaline to reduce their anxiety. Once the body knows it has survived the challenge, it can relax and they can study far better. Let your tweens and teens know, “You do have time to exercise. You’ll think better, be more focused, and remember what you’ve studied.”
How Much Exercise and What Kind?
Healthy people manage stress better. Active people enjoy lifelong physical and emotional health benefits. People who exercise regularly protect their brains well into advanced age. The Center for Disease Control guidelines suggest adolescents should have a minimum of 60 minutes of physical activity daily. Dr. John Ratey summarizes the evidence behind the power of exercise to help people think more clearly and lower symptoms of ADHD, anxiety, and depression, in Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.
Exercise is a powerful tool for stress management in two key ways. First, exercise provides an opportunity for immediate stress release. Parents of young children may notice this effect. When children return from playing, running or climbing on a playground, they often appear happier, behave better, and may be ready to nap. Second, exercise as a regular practice —with repeated sessions over time — trains the body and mind to respond to stress more effectively.
We know that exercise training can strengthen muscles, and make the heart pump blood more efficiently. Teens may experience the feeling of quick release the very first time they decide to go for a challenging run. Every time we exercise, the body also makes hormones that encourage the brain to generate new cells, protect cells that are already present, to build more connections between cells, and to influence signals sent between cells. Exercise, as a practice, literally remodels the brain!
Exercise Affects the Body
Because exercise is key to successful stress management we can’t let it become a source of stress. To achieve balance, we need healthy — not compulsive — exercise. Movement that gets the heart pumping and blood flowing is what counts. It doesn’t have to include competition. As people use exercise to manage stress, regain focus, or just to feel better, they figure out what works. Sometimes only a serious sweat will do. At other times, a quiet run in solitude fits the bill. And other times, only the strategizing and connections associated with team sports offer whats needed. Certain activities — like dance and sports that rely on precision or technique — allow people to create movements that are expressive and beautiful.
Exercise Affects the Mind
Exercise also builds mental stamina. Weight training may give young people a sense of control and power. Just as they think they can’t do one more rep, they find the extra strength. [Note: Weight training, in particular, should only be initiated under the supervision of a coach that understands young, growing bodies]. Both weight training and aerobic exercises also engage the mind and require full-on focus, allowing what seems troubling to seem less so.
Get Outside and Create Enduring Habits
Whatever exercise strategies our adolescents lean towards, we should encourage them to also include some lifelong activities like walking, riding bikes, hiking, and swimming. These activities can be used throughout the lifespan because the intensity chosen matches varying comfort levels. This is an important strategy to keep aging bodies healthy. Because they don’t require getting together a team, they are available anytime.
A great way to help young people become more active is to get them outside! When young people go outside they are more likely to walk, run, play, climb and explore. Time spent outdoors, all on its own, helps people to manage negative emotions and pay better attention. Young people who spend more time outdoors are more likely to seek time in the outdoors as adults. This is especially true when they learn to enjoy time outdoors with their families.
Relieve Stress, Don’t Create It
Most importantly, exercise should be fun. When teens feel that participating in sports is just another form of pressure, they may give up exercising as soon as they can make their own decisions. Sports can be great – when they’re fun for the participant. But most lifelong sports aren’t competitive. Try to help your teens understand that some of the greatest athletes compete primarily against themselves. And, some of the fittest adults don’t even consider competition. They just find movement a pleasure and benefit from how it makes them feel.
Not Just For Young People
Remember teens will find our words as meaningless if they don’t agree with our actions. Children notice how we manage stress. Consider this: Are you more likely to come home and reach for a beer or a bag of cheese curls or to go for a run and then soak in a shower? Fitness activities like biking and hiking are great for family togetherness. When your children associate healthy activities with good family times, they’ll likely enjoy the same activities with their children in the future. Healthy living can be a multigenerational investment in your family’s well-being.