…or Cycle or Swim or Lift It Out
Stressed out? You’re not the only one. In a 2014 poll conducted by NPR with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health, more than 1 in 4 Americans reported having a lot of stress in the past month, while 50% of respondents—over 115 million people—said they experienced a stressful event in the last year. Considering that polls like this one don’t count the hidden, unconscious stress people experience without knowing it, it’s pretty clear we’re dealing with a serious and pervasive problem. Fortunately, one of the best and most immediate ways to beat stress is also one of the simplest: exercise.
In addition to physically affecting your body, exercise chemically alters your brain. Not only does it boost production of endorphins—the neurotransmitters responsible for that “runner’s high” you get after working out—exercise also lowers levels of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. One study conducted at Princeton and published in the Journal of Neuroscience shows physical activity can even reorganize your brain so it responds less to stress. Mice in the study were divided into two groups, one with free access to a running wheel and one without a wheel. After six weeks, the mice were briefly exposed to a stressor in the form of cold water. Right after the stressor, the brains of the active mice experienced an activity jump in neurons responsible for shutting down excitement in the part of the brain, the ventral hippocampus, known to regulate anxiety. At the same time, neurons in the runner mice released more gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that calms nerve activity in the brain.
I like running alone, but in exercise can provide you with an ideal opportunity to network or spend time with friends. If you’re like me, it also provides a great excuse to have some “Me” time. Exercise also acts to lessen stress on a behavioral level. As you start to see changes in your body—from weight loss to increased strength and stamina—your confidence will grow accordingly. Suddenly more vigorous and energetic, you’ll have the power and self-discipline necessary to accomplish all your goals rather than stressing over them.
I know you’re thinking you’re too busy to exercise, especially since you probably need to spend a billion hours at the gym to reap any stress-busting benefits. After all, your lack of spare time is probably one of the things that’s stressing you out. But you really only need to do a little bit—twenty minutes or so—every day to take the edge off. Instead of scrolling through social media over lunch, try taking a quick walk around the block, which some research has shown to have the same effect as a mild tranquilizer. (Since exercise also improves your focus and concentration, you’ll be more relaxed AND super sharp for that afternoon meeting.) In the evening, spend some time watching TV on the treadmill instead of the couch. Take it from a busy physician who’s also a triathlete—you’ll never regret making time to exercise. And alleviating some of your stress allows you to be the best, most successful version of yourself. Why settle for anything less?
Wondering what areas of your health could use your attention? Consider taking my Optimal Men’s Health quiz. It’s designed to help you determine your next best step to getting healthier and closer to winning.
Myles Spar, MD, MPH is board certified in Internal Medicine and in Integrative Medicine. As a clinician, teacher and researcher on faculty of the top Integrative Medical Center in the U.S., he has led the charge for a more proactive, holistic and personalized approach to care that focuses on cutting edge technology and preventative care. Dr. Spar has been a consultant with the NBA, presented a TEDx Talk, appeared on national television, and been featured in publications such as the Men’s Journal and the Los Angeles Times. He is National Director and V.P. of Medical Services for AndHealth, a digital health company utilizing lifestyle medicine approaches to reverse chronic illness. He is available on a limited basis to consult with individual patients interested in a personalized approach to optimal performance and health.