If I’m having one of those days, where I am inside my own head, feeling anxious, worried or just overwhelmed with the length of my to do list, a guaranteed way to change my mindset is to lace up my runners and head out for a run. It could literally be a 10 minute jog around the block and that’s enough of a distraction to relax my mind. I am calmer, I often have a new perspective on whatever to was that was stressing me out and I just generally feel better.
Why is this? Well I am sure most of you have read somewhere or been told that exercise is a great way to get the ‘endorphins flowing’.
What exactly are endorphins? Often referred to as the ‘feel good hormones’ they are peptides produced by the brain that bind to the opiate receptors which reduce the perception of pain and trigger feelings of euphoria. The idea of a ‘runners high’ is the perfect example of this. It’s an internal experience felt after a long, hard run where you are suddenly blissfully unaware of how tired you are, or how sore your legs are; instead you feel amazing, top of the world.
Does the type of training matter? Well actually yes exercise selection is important. Aerobic and cardiovascular exercise are said to be the best choices when it comes to elevating these feel good hormones. Interestingly some newer research comparing moderate vs high intensity exercise found that moderate intensity produced feelings of happiness and euphoria, while those that participated in high intensity training actually had increased negative feelings and pain. I’d be watching that space to see if any more research is done around more specific types of training but for now we do know that moderate aerobic exercise will give you that happiness hit you are looking for!
Endorphin release via aerobic exercise is only one side half of the picture when thinking about training to relieve stress.
I think its also important to consider lower impact exercise types such as yoga. For me these forms of exercise provide a different type of stress relief. It’s quieter, your body is relaxed as you move through series of controlled stretches and poses all while trying to control your breathing. Proper breathing control is a skill that when done well can have a significant impact on the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system.
During times of stress our sympathetic system is in overdrive. It’s that flight or fight system that increases our heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tone preparing us for exertion. The parasympathetic is the opposite, it slows our system down, prepares us for rest and relaxation. The sympathetic system can be triggered by all forms of stress, by fear, by anxiety.
Controlled breathing during a practice such as yoga can effectively down regulate our sympathetic system and up regulate the parasympathetic system. The key to the breathing is actually the exhalation phase. A long slow breath out is what triggers the parasympathetic system which will quieten the body and induce a relaxation effect. Psychologically focussing on breathing can also clear our mind of its thoughts and worries which can also contribute to stress reduction.
I think the most important factor when it comes to using exercise as a way to relieve stress is that you have to enjoy what you do. If you hate running, it’s unlikely that you will feel really great after a run. Find activities that are fun, that you look forward to because at the end of the day you need to be consistent if you actually want to have a longstanding affect on your day to day stress levels!