The best reason to exercise isn’t to lose weight or get strong – it’s to maintain sanity.
Work. Money. Relationships. Kids. In-laws. Time. Betrayal. Warts. Inevitable death.
You’re stressed. I can feel it from here. You should exercise more 1.
Stress has a purpose: to inspire one of a few responses, most of them physical, and all of them helpful to someone who wants to keep breathing. The Fight or Flight response 2 gets the most air time. You wake in the night in a cloud of burning, choking smoke. Flight. Your little sister gets sucker punched by some punk ass kid on the playground. Fight. In both cases, your Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) orders a hormonal stress cocktail be shotgunned into your bloodstream and you kick into autopilot, sprinting or thrashing, as the circumstance warrants, until the fire has been escaped or the kid’s punk ass face is the only thing holding your sneaker off the ground. In both cases, movement inspires the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) to work the stress out of the body and affect calm. Balance is restored.
Staying alive was no easy task for our human ancestors. Evolution favored our Big, Sexy Brains because we needed them to survive without fur or razor sharp fangs or gizzards. But a Big, Sexy Brain – pre-cyber-village and before Stephen Hawking – was only as useful as the body that housed it. We didn’t come up in the world to be brilliant and motionless. Survival meant doing tremendous physical work every day. It was a simple rule: Move or perish. In that context, the stress of daily life served us well – it inspired us to act, to farm, to hunt, to build, to care-take, to haul, to chop and to breed. The daily grind was rough, relentless, and stressful, and we worked the stress out as nature intended – through movement.
Modernity put the kibosh on regular movement, but the stressors are still going strong. Sure, the sources of stress have changed, many dramatically, but your SNS doesn’t worry itself with the minutiae. The same hormonal cocktail gets released when your iPhone goes black as got released when Laura’s Pa saw a cloud of locusts descending on his crops 3. Cortisol and adrenaline bring on sweat, a racing heart, heightened senses and strength and focus… Pa had a million billion insect stressors to fight, and his stress hormones helped him fight like a sonofabitch. You? You sit there and tap your screen. Tap tap TAP. The hormones of focus and panic and action are coursing through your blood, but there’s nothing to fight and nowhere to run. Denied their natural physical expression, these bio-goosers begin to harm the body they were released to rescue. Your immune system weakens and your memory takes a hit. Over time, unexpressed stress manifests as chronic fatigue, depression, insomnia, anxiety, acne, headaches, addiction, and, worst of all, being a giant asshole. We – and those we love – suffer every day that we fail to work out our stress.
Did I just say workout? Yup. Exercise is the best way to respond to stress 4. It’s up to us to provide our bodies with the movement modernity has rendered unnecessary. That way we can meet our stress with healthy, appropriate physical expression, with the movements that stress hormones are released to help us accomplish. Lift. Push. Carry. Climb. Yank. Throw. Punch. Dig. Run. Skip. Jump. Play. Dance. Any and all movement helps the body metabolize cortisol and adrenaline, helps it relax and brings it back into balance. Many find that the more intense the activity, the more stress relief it affords. Luckily for those who never exercise, any kind of movement feels intense at first, so relief from stress, no matter how massive, is almost guaranteed. But exercises needn’t be intense to effectively relieve stress. Relief can be had with just 10 minutes of gentle yoga 5, or even a leisurely game of ping pong.
The locusts totally obliterated Pa’s crops, by the way, and his fields were kaputz for two whole years. Once the reality of the situation sank in, Pa’s stress hormones helped him walk 300 miles to make a few bucks at the closest plague-free farm. Hey, Cortisol – Good lookin’ out!
Did I mention walking is a great, stress-relieving exercise?
What kind of exercise helps you work out your stress?
- By “more” I mean “at all.” ↩
- Yes, Captain Nitpicker, this is actually two totally different responses. I appreciate your eye for detail. Maybe later you can count my wrinkles. And while we’re at it, there’s also the Freeze and Submit responses. Another post for another day. ↩
- You’d be more grateful and a better conversationalist at social engagements if you read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “On the Banks of Plum Creek” from the Little House series. ↩
- Shy of mercilessly slaying your iPhone. ↩
- Odd, but true. Hey Man, if it works, rock it. Gently. ↩