Exercise Reduces Stress

It is a simple fact that exercise reduces stress, so in order to maintain a healthy sense of balance in life, it is necessary to get up and stretch or move at frequent intervals throughout the day.

You were made to move! For millions of years your ancestors roamed the savannas, swam in shallow inland seas, climbed trees, ran, walked, rolled, and frolicked in the fields. They lived an active and embodied existence. Is it any wonder that it feels so good when you exercise and why you can feel so funky when you don’t? Your body is not made to sit still in front of a computer monitor or TV for long periods of time, no matter what your boss, or those little people in the TV say.

Every tradition of exercise and physical development is, in essence, a discipline of balance: the balance of activity and rest, of contracting and relaxing, of integrating and balancing left side and right side, front and back, and of hundreds of subtle complementary moves and functions that are necessary for physical balance and health. Just go to a gym and watch the cycle of exercises or weight machines that a person follows in a well-programmed workout and you will see balance at work. Similarly, go to any well conceived stretching or yoga class, tai chi, or martial arts class, and you will see balance in action. Each move is followed by its mirror opposite, or by a movement or stretch that works the opposing muscle groups. Stretching backwards is followed by stretching forward, reaching out to the left is balanced by a stretch to the right.

As our understanding of optimal fitness expands, it is becoming more common to complement the high arousal achieved in an intense aerobics workout with at least five or ten minutes of deep relaxation at the end of a workout. Your body is made to move and to optimize its function through the dynamic balance of a myriad of exquisite components and functions. The more deeply and completely you understand your body, the more in balance you will live.

The topic of exercise is a deep, vast, and exciting one with much to teach us about finding balance in our lives. Rather than attempt to go into great detail in this book, we’d like to simply offer a few basic guidelines, and some ideas on finding balance through exercise that you may not get from other sources. From here we encourage you to check with your health care coaches, or to check into the resources we’ve listed toward the end of this book.

The Basics

  • Move 30 minute per day at least five days per week.
    This is the USDA’s most recent recommendation. This could involve walking, jogging, riding a bicycle, or working in the garden, and need not necessarily include more complex rituals that involve club memberships, costly equipment, or access to a locker room. Numerous studies show that just this much moderate exercise can produce dramatically enhanced immunological function, resistance to disease, and prolonged life, so take this advice to heart!
  • Find an activity (or a variety of activities) that you enjoy.
    It is unlikely that you will sustain a exercise routine if you don’t enjoy what you are doing. Experiment and find activities that work for you: walking, bike riding, working out at a gym, yoga, tai chi, the list is almost endless.
  • Solo or Social?
    Depending on your inclination, working out can be either a solo or a social ritual. For many of us, working out is not much fun unless we are connecting with and being supported by others. For others who are busy with people all day long, solo exercise time provides a welcome opportunity to integrate the experiences of the day, and for creative reflection and deep listening that are so necessary for our lives.
  • Aerobic
    Aerobic exercise increases the efficiency of your heart. While ordinary people have a resting heart beat of, on average, 70 beats per minute, trained athletes may have resting heart rates of less than 40 beats per minute. For an average person, 70 milliliters of blood are pumped with each beat, while for an athlete it may go up to 150 milliliters. At rest your heart pumps 5 liters of blood per minute. During intense exercise it may pump up to 30 liters per minute--a bathtub full every two minutes! Over the course of a lifetime your heart beats over 2,500,000,000 times. Reducing your resting heart rate with exercise by 10 beats a minute would mean saving nearly twenty days of work for your heart over the course of each year. Conditioning your cardiovascular system requires learning how to maintain your heart rate in your “target zone” for at least twenty minutes in a state that is not overly relaxed or over strenuous. Your target zone has both an upper and a lower limit that lies between 60 and 80 percent of your maximal heart rate. For effective aerobic training, you must find and sustain a balance in this range; below 60 percent of your capacity you will achieve little fitness benefit, and above 80 percent there is little added benefit. Most fitness experts recommend that the lower and upper limits for your target zone can be determined with the following formula: Lower limit: 170 minus your age = _______ beats per minute Upper limit 220 minus your age = _______ beats per minute

    To determine if you are in your target zone you must check your pulse immediately upon stopping exercise because your pulse changes very quickly once exercise is stopped or slowed down. Ideally, find the beat within one second, and then count for ten seconds, and multiply by six to get your beats per minute. If you check your pulse and find it is below your target zone, then increase the intensity of your work out to get in your target zone. If the pulse is too high, balance that out by stepping down the intensity of your workout. We call the ideal five phase aerobic workout a WACSR:

    1. Warm up: Start out slow and gradually build the intensity of your workout.
    2. Aerobic Phase: Maintain a balanced intensity in your workout that keeps you in your target zone for at least twenty minutes. Check your pulse as often as you need to, and adjust the intensity of your workout to stay in your zone.
    3. Cool Down: Gradually reduce the intensity of your workout allowing your heart rate to slow down. Slow your pace and begin to feel the vitality and strength within your body.
    4. Stretch: Take some time for balanced stretching. Breathe deeply and begin to savor the revitalization of your body.
    5. Relaxation: To optimize the balance you gain through exercise, follow the natural wisdom of the body and take a rest. As you know from times of working and playing hard, or from making love and then snuggling up to enjoy the afterglow that follows, after a time of increased arousal, your body will naturally rebound into deep natural relaxation. When you work out, hit the shower, and then jet off to work, without adding the relaxation phase, you miss the integration and deep balancing phase of your workout, and this is the best part.

    To take advantage of this naturally balancing cycle, add on an extra ten to fifteen minutes of deep relaxation onto the final phase of your workout. Since your body may cool down as you relax, it can be helpful to have a blanket handy or to put on your sweat suit. Lie down on a soft mat, kick back in the hammock, or sit comfortably and let the effortless and natural rhythms of your breath and the balancing wisdom of your body carry you into a state of deep relaxation. When it is time to return to activity notice how intensely peaceful, calm, and alert you are. People often notice that they get as much deep rest and revitalization during fifteen minutes of this kind of relaxation as they get during hours of good sleep. Carry this calm intensity into whatever activity may follow.
  • Strength
    To develop strength, weight or resistance training is suggested. Here balance is achieved through balancing the development of opposing muscle groups. Work biceps, then triceps. Push, then pull. Build the body in balance.
  • Flexibility
    To find balance and move through the world with grace and power we need flexibility. Follow stretches to the right by stretches to the left, and back bends by forward bends. Stretch deeply and comfortably in order to find an expanded range of motion.
  • Pick a theme for your workout.
    This may be a quality or strength that you would like to build in yourself through your training. It may be a question or theme that you would like to ponder. Make an agreement with yourself to let this theme be the primary focus for this time and agree with yourself to also remain watchful of traffic or aspects of your environment that you must attend to for safety.
  • Do a Dardick
    Serving as a physician at the center for Olympic athletes, Irving Dardick, M.D., developed an unusual system of exercise that builds upon many of the insights into balance that you have been learning. From his extensive research with peak performers and with people suffering from chronic illness, Dr. Dardick discovered that people who built into their days frequent short periods of high arousal activity followed by a period of deep relaxation were often able to dramatically improve their physical resilience. This ususally resulted in a major upswing in their physical, mental, and emotional health, and an overall increase in the quality of balance in their lives. From the perspective of balance, folks who are depressed tend to benefit most through exercise, while folks who are suffering from anxiety need to learn to slow down and meditate more. Alternating waves of arousal and waves of recovery through successive rhythms of both exercise and meditation or deep relaxation, can provide immediate benefits from a preventive as well as a restorative point of view. To “do a Dardick” can be very quick and simple:

    1. Boost your activity level: First, check your pre-activity heart rate. Then, launch into vigorous activity for one to five minutes: go run around the block, do some push ups, climb a few flights of stairs, or increase your activity in a way that works for where ever you are at the time.
    2. Then deeply relax: Comfortably sit or lie down and mindfully ride the naturally slowing waves of your breathing, and the slowing rhythm of your heart into the pool of deep revitalizing relaxation. Ideally relax until your heart rate has dropped to a rate slower than it was at when you first began. As you relax, you might notice that you yawn or deeply sigh. These are often indicators that you are releasing accumulated tensions, so welcome them if they happen naturally.
    3. Carryover: Carry the calm vitality, and sense of deep mindbody balance resulting from this brief time back into whatever activity will follow. You can repeat this Dardick cycle as often as every fifteen minutes, or at least a few times during the day. Especially on days when you are doing sedentary work, making time to move or stretch can be like stirring the soup so it doesn’t stick to the sides of the pot and burn.
  • Go for a Mindful Bike Ride, a Run, a Walk.
    Make a mental commitment to be fully present from point A to point B in your workout. When you arrive, make a mental note of how fully present you were, and then pick the next “milepost” or marker. For example, give yourself the challenge to be fully present as you walk from your house to the corner. Notice how you did and then challenge yourself to stay mindful while you walk to the next intersection. Continue setting goals for yourself as you go.
  • Drift with Mindfulness
    Run or workout freely and simply witness where your mind wanders to. What do you notice in the world around you? What aspects of inner physical or mental experience call for your attention? What are the values, aspirations, or yearnings that work to organize and focus your attention? Just let your awareness drift where it wants to go without imposing any specific focus upon it. Simply follow the movements of your mind with mindfulness and see where it takes you.
  • Exercise in Nature!
    Whenever possible get outside in nature and move. Though this takes some discipline to overcome your inertia, once you do finally get out into the fresh air, you will most certainly experience the benefits. We often suggest to people that one important strategy for living a balanced life is to spend an hour each day in nature. If you combine this with exercise, you will learn about balance from two great teachers, your body and the natural world. Let them teach you, and listen deeply.

Also, check out these additional exercise tips for developing an effective fitness program.

[Adapted from the book "Living in Balance" by Joel Levey
and Michelle Levey]

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