April 1, 2020

Managing stress through exercise

UW Health Sports Medicine Fitness Center staff offers tips for managing stress through exercise.

When something causes us stress - whether it's running late for work, a disagreement with a spouse, or a near-accident on a bike - the effects on our bodies are the same. We go into 'fight or flight' mode and a hormonal cascade is triggered from the brain to everywhere in the body to get the nutrients and energy ready when needed. We don't even realize it's happening, but we may feel an increased heart and respiratory rate, our blood pressure goes up, and our muscles feel tense. In short, we are getting ready to move.

That’s why being physically active is a great way to deal with stress. Our body is primed for movement and being active can help return things to what's called homeostasis, or our normal levels.

Why it is Important to Deal with the Effects of Stress

Five Steps to Breathing for Your Health

Breathing is a relatively simple exercise that can help your body when it's under stress. 

When we're under constant, or chronic stress - like in our jobs - our bodies keep the hormonal cascade going in an attempt to deal with the situation. In turn, this can result in high blood pressure, decreased bone and muscle mass, increased abdominal fat storage, increased insulin resistance, and other physical impacts. 

One of the big things that happens in response to stress is the immune system gets suppressed, which, in the short term, makes sense. If we needed to flee from a bear, our bodies would want to direct all of the energy toward running, and not fighting a cold. However, over time, the constant suppression of our immune system can potentially lead to illnesses. That is why being active and managing the effects of stress on our bodies is so important. 

When our regular exercise routine is rolling along, it's not hard to stay active. But, there may be times when our regular physical activity outlets aren't available to us - the gym isn't available, a meeting runs over a class time, or the weather is too wet or cold for run. Not only can that add stress, but it can be challenging to figure out other ways to stay active. Having a back-up plan can help. Consider a few suggestions from the Fitness Center staff: 

  • Walk, run, bike inside using equipment

  • Create a home gym

  • Use resistance bands for strength training

  • Random movements focusing on posture, balance, and mobility throughout the day

  • Dance around the house

  • Pilates

  • YouTube exercise videos

Just as there is no “best” form (or way to) exercise, there is no home exercise option that works optimally for everyone. But the great news is that there are many possibilities available. And when the weather is good, getting outside for a walk, taking the dogs for a hike, or consider trying an outside circuit. For example, run/walk around the block then do a strength exercise in the driveway, repeat a number of times with different strength exercises.