How to best exercise to relieve stress [Part 2]
Updated: May 5, 2020
..............Continued from PART 1
Stretch at the end of an exercise session
Stretching is said to have the effect of ‘switching off the nervous system’ and while I think that’s a stretch (pun intended!) it undoubtedly promotes relaxation, as the many yoga devotees will attest.
I’m a big believer in stretching at the end of a workout for a couple of reasons. Firstly if you’ve worked at the intensity described [in Part 1] to relieve stress and you're really physically fatigued, relaxing for a few minutes by stretching feels like a pretty good thing to do. It rounds off the workout nicely and provides an opportunity for body and mind to settle so you can get on with your day in a nice relaxed state.
Just as importantly your muscles are very warm post workout and hence pliable i.e. you can stretch further safely. Basically the main objective of stretching is to stretch a long way, so that the muscles are then more permanently longer. Straight after exercise is a real window of opportunity to stretch.
A critical part of optimising the process of stretching (the yogis know this one) is to breathe with intent. There are many reputed benefits to focusing on your breath as covered in this exhaustive scientific review. There are 2 things to be aware of in order to optimise the benefits of breathing: * You may have experienced the effects of exhalations on muscle tension during hands on stretching techniques by a physiotherapist. By focusing on long relaxed exhalations during stretching you can reduce tension by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. This system decreases heart rate, blood pressure, and skeletal muscle tone, preparing the body for rest, sleep, or digestion. Essentially it's the mechanism which relaxes the body. * Breathing purely through the nose (if possible) has also been shown to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Conversely breathing only in and out of the mouth is thought to trigger the flight- flight response.
One way to help bring focus to breathing while stretching is to hold your stretches for 5 nice, long breathes. This works out to be about 30 seconds which is a reliable length of time to sustain a stretch (if you consider the various studies suggesting differing periods as optimal for holding a stretch). Of course you could try breathing exclusively through the nose as well. This method of nasal breathing with extended exhalations can even be applied to the more intense cardio or weights preceding the stretching. You may find however you can only do it to a certain intensity as the demand for oxygen becomes to great and you need to get the mouth involved when you're working really hard. I'd suggest simply trying these more focused breathing techniques and seeing how it feels.
'Environment matters' is something we hear regularly in many different contexts. It certainly applies to exercise and stress.
It’s often an underrated consideration but if you exercise in a place that's not right for you it can make you more stressed than when you started.
Your perception and experience is what counts. While 1 person may find a lot of people working out to thumping dance music in a gym energising and comforting, it could be cause for increased stress levels for others. A solo bush walk or run might just be the environment that does the trick for many.
Mind your neck
What does inevitably accompany stress is tension in the neck muscles. This is part of the survival mechanism of the fight-flight stress response. The neck muscles contract in order to elevate the shoulders to protect the carotid artery from being severed. This is what gets cut in gruesome films when someone meets their ultimate demise through having their throat slit. If you overload the upper body too much with weights and boxing while there is a lot of tension in the neck you're a chance of inviting injury or headache. It’s wisest to space out upper body exercises within a workout by alternating them with lower body exercise like squats, kicking or some running. This is where good exercise instruction and programming matter.
Sometimes it's simply best not to exercise or modify the intensity
Stress beyond a certain degree and duration weakens the immune system. Intense exercise with compromised immunity will often run you down to an extent where illness or even infection result. It can be tricky to assess whether exercise is wise when stressed. Consider how tired you are and if you're eyes and throat feel ok, as well as the condition of your skin. If you're on the cusp of getting sick, intense exercise will likely tip you over the edge. Walking, yoga or simply complete rest could well be better options. Know you need to take action to deal with stress and get fit but need some help? Contact me and see how I can help get you going in an effective way..
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