This article was written by Nora Laberee, a former CPTC research assistant.
Physical exercise can be subject to a risk of serious injury. Listen to your body. Consult a doctor before using workout equipment or starting any routine program.
Stress Management and Exercise
As tweens and teens, managing stress well keeps us well! Think of it like tightening the strings on a guitar. If there is no tension, the strings make an odd sound when plucked. Tighten them too much and the strings will break. Finding the right amount of tension in the strings is the key to making good music. Similarly, it’s important to learn how to manage stress so the body is able to adjust the amount of tension it can handle. Integrating exercise and relaxation strategies into our lives is a powerful way to achieve balance.
Exercise and Hormones
Hormones sometimes help with the response to danger and other times allow the body to calm down. Fear releases adrenaline. Exercise and relaxation release endorphins and other chemicals that relax the body and brain.
A rush of adrenaline puts the body on alert. Blood rushes from the belly to the legs preparing the body to run. This creates that tingling sensation known as butterflies. The heart beats faster and breathing intensifies to help blood flow. Pupils dilate to let in light to see while running. It’s hard to think clearly or be empathetic when adrenaline is surging.
Our hormones can save our lives. But they can also be counterproductive when the body and brain deal with too much stress. This goes for real or imagined stress. For example, elevating a math test or an argument with a friend to a higher level than necessary makes it hard to focus on studying, resolve conflict, or do much of anything else.
The first thing to do when feeling stressed is to ask yourself– Am I really in danger? Sometimes the reminder you are not really in danger will begin to calm you. However, in times of greatest stress, one of the things to turn to is exercise. It restores the ability to remain calm. A direct way to regain focus is to listen to your body. Adrenaline is shouting, “Hey, get moving!” Instincts tell the body to fight or run. Standing still, stress hormones re-circulate — unused and confused about why you’re not listening to them. The continued presence of adrenaline allows anxiety to build because your body worries where the danger might be and why you haven’t tried to escape from it. Exercise communicates to the body to move on.
A solution to managing stress lies in paying attention to and following the messages your body sends. It makes biological sense for a starting point of stress management to involve physical activity. Exercise literally is running away from or working out, the source of stress. Unfortunately, it is too often put off as a waste of time. But it’s important to understand that getting active leads to a greater ability to focus and to better performance.
Make the Time
Make time to get moving every day in some way. It is important for the mind, body, stress level, and overall well-being. School gives an opportunity to learn this lesson. Cramming for a test and feeling overwhelmed is precisely the time to work out. It reduces anxiety created by hormones. Once the body knows it has “run from danger” and survived, it can relax and focus on studying. Exercise leads to better and more focused thinking, and the ability to remember what’s been studied.
Managing stress is good for your health. Being active creates lifelong physical and emotional health benefits. Exercising regularly protects the brain well into adulthood. LeBron James, along with many other athletes and celebrities, is a major advocate for being active. His foundation, the LeBron James Family Foundation, believes that an education and living an active, healthy lifestyle is pivotal to the development of children and young adults. You don’t have to work out like LeBron James to stay active and work up a sweat. Even light activity is good for the body.
Exercise the Body
Exercise is a powerful tool for stress management for two reasons. First, it provides an opportunity for immediate stress release. Even though making time for exercise can be tough, you’ve got to find the time. It will help clear your head and ability to think the rest of the day. Second, with regular practice — and repeated sessions over time — you can train your body and mind to respond to stress in a more effective way.
Organized athletics are a great way to be active, but you don’t have to play a sport or run marathons to get moving! Whatever form of exercise you enjoy most is the best bet. Why? Because if you like doing it, you’re more likely to want to do it on a daily basis! Every time you exercise, your body makes hormones that encourage the brain to generate new cells. It also protects the cells that are already present. And it builds more and better connections between them. Exercise, as a practice, literally strengthens the brain!
Exercise the Mind
Exercise can also build mental stamina. Weight training, for example, gives a sense of control and power. Just when you think you can’t do one more rep, somehow the extra strength is found. Both weight training and aerobic activities also engage the mind, allowing whatever seemed troubling to seem less so. This is because exercise requires full focus.
Consider getting involved in activities that don’t require going to a gym or joining a sports team. Examples include walking, bike riding, hiking or yoga. A bonus — scientific research shows that time spent outdoors helps with the ability to manage negative emotions. It helps because it distracts from thinking negative things. It calms thoughts. These activities can be used throughout life because of the ability to choose an intensity that matches individual comfort levels.
Relieve Stress, Don’t Create It
Most importantly, exercise should be fun. If participating in sports is just another form of pressure, it defeats the purpose. Find a way of being active that’s enjoyable. Making time for exercise is a crucial part of having a healthy balance in life and keeping your mind focused and clear. The benefits that come from moving the body will help keep stress under control.