How Exercise Can Be Your Best Defense Against Stress

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A lieutenant colonel swims to work off stress.
Lt. Col. Tom Conklin of the Central Command Deployment and Distribution Operations Center, shown swimming at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, Sept. 26, 2009, says that “after five laps in the pool, your mind clears of everything else.” (Spc. Monte Swift/203rd Public Affairs Detachment)

In a fast-paced world where the fine line of work and relaxation has been blurred with wireless technology and the development of the home office, workers and families have become more susceptible to stress-related illnesses.

Stress is a natural element of our behavior, and our body handles it by injecting "stress hormones" into our bloodstream when we are feeling the burden of work, financial pains, spousal military deployments and so many other "stressors" to name.

Physiologically, stress wreaks havoc on the body. The same thing happens to your body when you are stressed at work or are troubled by a family issue as it does when you are in a fight-or-flight situation. However, when in an emergency, you usually can exert yourself physically to help relieve the stress hormones that are rushing into your bloodstream; some say they are equivalent to five or six Red Bulls.

In a nutshell, adrenaline and cortisol are two hormones that affect our response to a stressful situation, but they also can impact our health long term if not dealt with properly.

What can you do?

To reduce stress, our body is wired to burn it off. If you can go for a quick walk, stay away from caffeine and sugar for a few hours and take some deep breaths, then you will come back less stressed and ready to focus on the task at hand.

If your day is typically stressful at work, home or dealing with loved ones who are ill, you need a full, broadside attack on stress, or you will feel the burn that it can leave. By not dealing with stress, you are susceptible to a damaged immune system, cardiorespiratory distress, increased body fat, increased blood sugar and even acne. Here are the best ways to handle stress:

1. Exercise: By far, this is the best remedy to fighting a stressful day. Many like to exercise after work. This is a great way to burn off the stress, even if it is as simple as a 20-minute walk before or after dinner. However, exercise also causes a temporary increase in cortisol that can leave you a bit jittery if you are trying to go to sleep after an hour or two of exercising. So if you exercise in the evening, arrange it so that you will have 3-4 hours before you are trying to fall asleep for a more restful sleep.

*Note: Your cortisol levels actually will be lower in a few hours if you exercise than if you skip working out.

2. Diet: Where have you heard this before -- "proper exercise and diet." Well, it helps with stress, too. Foods rich in antioxidants, like many fruits and vegetables, are your best bet for snack foods and should make up a larger percentage of your overall meal preparation. Limit foods high in sugar and drinks high in caffeine in order to have a more relaxing evening before sleeping.

3. Sleep: People who exercise actually sleep better than those who do not. Some people with insomnia also have high levels of cortisol in their bloodstream when trying to fall asleep. Regardless of diet and exercise, you will not handle stress very well if you are not getting enough sleep and rest.

See these related articles for more pointers on exercise, diet and sleep:

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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