Exercise: A Sanctuary From Stress

Here are some insights to spur you toward a healthier new year.

Posted Dec 26, 2018

Luis Quintero/Pexels
Source: Luis Quintero/Pexels

Many years ago, when I was running a weight loss clinic for a university-associated hospital, new clients were asked about their motivation (or lack thereof) to exercise. Everyone answered that they might exercise if it helped them lose weight, and that would be the only reason for engaging in physical activity. For them, like so many, routine exercise was simply not a part of their lives. They might do it sporadically; walking as part of a day of sightseeing or dancing at a wedding reception. But harnessing themselves to exercise frequently was not going to happen unless it was necessary to accelerate their weight loss. In the interim, study after study has pointed to the benefits of exercise for improving sleep (1), maintaining cognitive abilities (2), improving bone strength (3), maintaining cardiovascular health (4), decreasing the likelihood of certain types of cancer (5), regulating glucose control in diabetes (6), improving mood disorders (7), and, of course, losing weight.

As anyone who has been unable to move for several weeks knows, the absence of physical activity causes significant muscle loss. Thus a lifetime of avoiding physical activity may make ambulatory activity or carrying packages difficult as the muscles in the arms, legs, and back become weaker and less functional with age.

But one benefit of exercise not emphasized sufficiently is that exercise can be a sanctuary from the stresses that surround us. For example, a friend with a very public job retreats to her basement exercise machine when she comes home from work. She told me that this is her private time. She doesn’t answer the phone or do email or attend to the unending obligations of her career and home, but instead immerses herself in watching old movies on a television screen as she works out on her elliptical trainer. Another, a busy therapist, swims underwater (with a snorkel tube) several times a week. “I don’t want to hear anyone talking," he told me. “Swimming allows me to escape.” A third person, a woman who works as a freelance journalist alone at home, leaves her solitary environment and goes to a yoga class every day to be with other people. “I like the class,“ she told me. "Going to it gives me the chance to talk with my friends. Writing can be very lonely.”

All of us need time to turn off the part of our brain that is constantly reminding us of what we have to do. Meditation or immersing oneself in a book, music, or hobby can have this effect. But exercising, be it a long walk or bike ride, a competitive game of tennis or working out with weights, accomplishes the same thing. Trying to keep up with the moves of the instructor in an exercise class, or counting repetitions while lifting weights, focuses the mind on the immediate; not what was or will be. It is very hard to be worried or concerned about some problem when your immediate concern is whether you will be able to keep moving an underused body part to the count of the instructor.

“When my training session with my personal instructor is over, I am so happy at making it through another workout that I really don’t care what happens the rest of the day!” a busy real estate agent told me. I feel that I accomplished at least one thing today, even if everything else goes wrong.“

Moreover, there should be no guilt associated with taking time out to exercise, whereas one might feel guilty at taking time to read or scroll the internet when there are errands to be run and commitments to be met. As a virtuous activity, exercise is right up there with brushing your teeth.

Escaping the relentless demands of daily life even briefly through physical activity won’t happen spontaneously any more than meditating happens spontaneously. It must be planned and put into the schedule. Escaping stress by going off to the gym, for a walk or a yoga class does not have to be done covertly. We are not talking about escaping prison here. But for those who do not understand or accept the restorative power of exercise, it might be wise to tell someone who wants your time that you have a meeting, appointment, conference call, assignment or some other unbreakable obligation at the time you plan to exercise. Otherwise, if you say, “I can’t do such and such because I have a Pilates class," the response might be, “Well, skip it.” This will of course only add to your stress. Family members must also be instructed not to interrupt your workouts with their needs unless there is a well-defined emergency.

Stress is about as inevitable as the other well-known certainties of life; death and taxes. We can’t prevent the stress entirely, but allowing yourself to escape from it, if only for an hour, makes it so much easier to bear.

References

"State of the epidemiological evidence on physical activity and cancer prevention." Friedenreich CM1, Neilson HK, Lynch BM. Eur J Cancer. 2010 Sep; 46(14):2593-604. doi: 10.1016/j.ejca.2010.07.028.

"Exercise and Sleep" Sleep Medicine Reviews Driver, H and Taylor S, 2000; 4: 387-402

"The Influence of Exercise on Cognitive Abilities"  Gomez-Pinilla F, Hillman C, Compr Physiol. 2013; 3: 403–428.