This month, I invited my friend Janet Huehls to be my guest author. We have been close friends for over 30 years, having met in high school typing class and been friends ever since. We are fortunate to have interests and passions that connect our careers too! Janet is a clinical exercise physiologist who motivates clients to achieve optimal health by designing exercise programs that combine the science of behavior change with the science of movement. This time of year can be exhausting and often our well-being is the first thing that falls off our to-do list. You will see after reading Janet’s article why I wanted to share her insights with you. Enjoy!
When you are feeling stressed, how do you know it? Does your heart race? Do muscles tighten? Does your head pound? The stress response is very physical, isn’t it? Why?
Our body is intelligent—everything it does has a purpose, including the stress response. Stress prepares the body for movement to help keep you safe. Even when you are sitting in traffic, worried about being late for an important meeting, every system in your body responds to what is happening in your brain so you are ready for physical action.
Even after you chill out on the couch, your body is still ready to move—just like your car sitting in traffic. Taking a deep breath, talking to a friend, or meditating are all great for lowering stress, but your body is still waiting to move. While it’s waiting, your cardiovascular, endocrine, and nervous systems are overworking (like your car using gasoline to sit in traffic!). Other systems like the digestive, reproductive and immune systems down-regulate so they don’t “waste” energy on healing and repair. Movement gives your body what it needs to restore calm.
If it were that simple, however, then running into your office after sitting in traffic would clear the stress response, but not all movement is created equal. Stressful movement perpetuates the stress response. Even just trying to get enough exercise can add to stress rather than reduce it. Also, our culture tends to equate exercise with enhancing performance or achieving perfection, which can be stress-producing.
If you can relate, here are three keys for transforming movement from stress-promoting to calm-restoring:
Mindset: Re-directing thoughts is one of our most powerful tools as human beings. Ever notice how just thinking about a stressful event makes you feel stressed again? Our brain is an amazing reality simulator, making thoughts feel real. When comparing ourselves to others or to our past or future selves, exercise can perpetuate the stress response. Research indicates shifting to positive thoughts calms the stress response and promotes health. Combine a positive mindset with the power of movement and you have an incredible resource for calm. Try a “gratitude walk,” focusing on all the things you appreciate about your body and the world around you as you move.
Kindness: Flooded with information about getting enough exercise, the health hazards of sitting, and how to “fix your body” with the right kind of exercise can turn exercise into a “should”—just one more task on the to-do list. When exercise is about fixing your body, it can leave you feeling like you are just not enough. When it is about pushing your body to excel, it can leave you feeling sore and exhausted. When it is about self-care, it leaves you feeling better physically and mentally. Don’t let the exercise-induced, naturally-balanced dose of substances like dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine that improve focus, memory, and mood be overridden by stress hormones. Choose the types of movement, intensity, and environment that are recharging for you. This is different for everyone, and changes day to day, season to season, year to year. Which brings us to our third key…
Presence: We can get so caught up in being time-efficient with exercise—multitasking to reach our step goal, lifting weights while watching TV, catching up on the news while getting cardio—that we miss out. The great news is each of us has a built-in guide with more advanced technology than the most sophisticated activity monitor and way more experienced than the best personal trainer—at no cost! Your body is your absolute best guide to using movement as a resource for calm and resilience. I call it tapping into your Inner Trainer™, offering the most personalized, accurate, up-to-date information about what your body needs moment to moment. Mental fatigue feels physical, so it is tempting to think that fatigue at the end of a stressful day means we need to veg out on the couch. Pausing with presence, you can feel the difference between mental and physical fatigue. Your body will tell you how movement can help restore your energy and mood so you can enjoy the rest of your day.
Life’s inevitable stressors can drain your energy and well-being as your body is left overworking even after the stressor has passed. Moving with mindset, kindness, and presence transforms movement into a resource. Trust your body as your best guide for building physical as well as mental strength, tapping into your innate ability to heal, restore, and be well now!
Janet Huehls is a clinical exercise physiologist and health coach. Her mission is to provide science-based, simple solutions for using movement to restore well-being and health. Check out her FREE online course called It’s Time to Re-define that clears away the myths and misconceptions that drain time and motivation for exercise. Her new online course, Simply Strong, focuses on a science-based and sustainable approach to strength training for enjoying life’s activities. For more information and to sign up for her courses and blog, visit www.janethuehls.com.