September 26, 2023

Sean McCawley, Fit for Life: Exercise to manage stress | Health & Fitness

Sean McCawley

“What are the top three stressors throughout your day?”

This is a question we include in our introductory paperwork we encourage our new personal training clients to complete. Not only is this topic a great way to develop a productive and growth mindset oriented in an interpersonal coaching relationship, but this also offers valuable information on a data point that can substantially improve our everyday lives when embarking on a new fitness journey.

Ever since my genesis as a health and fitness professional, I’ve included a question about stress in some form of initial evaluations. The topic of stress was a theme covered during my experience working with acute rehabilitative patients in the physical therapy setting, the general population as a personal trainer at local gyms, and athletes in the high school and collegiate sport arena.

Stress has a profound effects on our well-being, whether you are an elite athlete, recovering from extensive surgery and looking to have a productive season while juggling 60 hours a week of academic work, or a general, 40- hour per week worker.

External stress can be debilitating physiologically, mentally and emotionally. Increased stress hormone concentration such as adrenaline and cortisol cause anxiety, depression and decreased motivation. Stress triggers fatigue, increased blood sugar concentrations and inflammation of joints and muscles.

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In the exercise physiology realm, increased adrenaline and cortisol can serve a productive synergy during exercise and athletic activity. Stress hormones produced during rigorous physical activity aid in shuttling sugar into working muscle support absorption of oxygenated blood to cells so the exercise participant can perform optimally.

During prolonged physical activity, stress hormones can convert fats to be utilized as calories. Intense physical activity and athletic settings put the body into a “fight or flight” mode, in which an increased stress hormone concentration can be beneficial. During exercise and rigorous physical activity, a little bit of adrenaline and cortisol isn’t such a bad thing.

Conversely, high stress hormone concentration while sitting down and performing grueling hours of desk work, having a conversation with your spouse about finance, or wondering why your 15-year-old child is mysteriously absent from her fifth period class can cause adverse effects to mental health.

One could imagine such interactions could cause your heart rate to rise over 100 beats per minute, induce a glamorous display of arm-pit sweating and perhaps cause your pupils to dilate to size of dimes. This isn’t the most productive state to be in while standing in still in one position.

External stress stemming from the challenges of life can tell our bodies to react in a “fight or flight” state when we actually don’t need to fight for our lives or run away from anything. The result is an increased amount of stress hormone causing an incongruency in the natural mechanism of how stress hormones most productively serves the body.

Fitness professionals inquire about stress because we have seen stress naturally decline as exercise adherence is increased. It’s easy to schedule a doctor appointment and tell the doctor about symptoms of anxiety and stress related symptoms. However, it’s the natural human tendency in our fast-paced society to deviate away from things that might be a little challenging.

As exercise increases, our ability to manage stress hormones throughout our daily interactions becomes more advanced. Inducing a naturally “fight or flight” stress response via consistently practiced exercise, our body and psychology of our minds become attuned to what a stressful situation is. Connecting with what is truly stressful allows the mind to efficiently manage external stresses.

Stress medications are important and useful in many applications. However, the refinement of our mind and body starts with fitness. By constructing a foundation of physical strength in our bodies, we can naturally handle the stresses of life without the use of stress medication.

Perhaps, taking the challenge to exercise one to two times per week before renewing a prescription of anti-depressants can create positive shifts in our lives. Take some time out for yourself. Put the phone down, put social media on hold for few minutes, and share with your family, friends, and co-workers you’d like a few minutes to yourself. Get out and move. I promise the world will still be there after you focus on yourself.

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Sean McCawley, the founder and owner of Napa Tenacious Fitness in Napa, CA, welcomes questions and comments. Reach him at 707-287-2727, [email protected] or visit the website