Prioritizing Exercise for Work Stress and Mental Health


Prioritizing Exercise for Work Stress and Mental Health

Stress and worry are often over looked and “poop-pooed” as abstract ideas. Yes, we feels stress but only when it’s happening. We don’t physically feel the things that are happening on the inside of our body. Honestly, I’d bet some of you don’t know what is happening on the inside of your body when you’re stressed. I spent months researching stress and the physiological response our body has in order to develop a “Lifestyle Management” or “Stress Management” education course for our patients who come through Cardiac Rehab at Loudoun Hospital. I teach the course myself and I inevitably get people who are focused on work, promotions, work hours, long commutes, etc. Living in the Northern Virginia area, these are not uncommon or surprising at all. 

Mind you, I said Cardiac Rehab but you need to understand, my patients range from 30-80 years old; with a couple outliers on both ends. We know common risk factors for heart issues like blood pressure, cholesterol, obesity, diet, etc. (More to come on this in my next article with Noble). Despite these risk factors, we forget, or just don’t know, about stress. With the business of the area we live in, I’m sure many of you also experience this kind of stress.

Our stress response in our body is very chemical and physiological but it manifests psychologically for us with symptoms like fatigue, constant worry, irritability, anxiety etc. Everyone is a little different with their responses—I personally like to sleep and avoid reality! Wahoo! We feel stressed when we have these responses and some people take time to relax and others have a “that’s life” attitude and press on. 

While you’re pressing on, under a chronic load of stress, we’re subjecting ourselves to detrimental physical responses like high blood pressure, an increased heart rate making our heart work harder than it needs to, resistance to insulin and our body’s ability to handle the food we eat, and brain remodeling—yep, brain remodeling. As in, the areas of your brain that are constantly used and where your attention is focused are larger. When you’re stressed, your hippocampus and amygdala have the potential to be larger. Other areas of your brain, like your frontal cortex which guides you in decision making, have the potential to be smaller.

Consistent exercise at a moderate to vigorous intensity, most days a week (4), for 20- 60 minutes coupled with strength training, at least 2-3 days a week, 5-10 exercises with a minimum of 10-15 repetitions, 2-3 sets, are the minimum guidelines for exercise and health. Exercise helps reduces your stress response physically in terms of blood pressure, heart rate, resting heart rate, and allows us to process the food we eat better. Exercise is also a hormetic stressor which you can think of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”—que Kelly Clarkson music. Similarities between exercise and our stress response in our body allow us to handle, learn, and adapt from stress in order to approach it better the next time.

Exercise is the first line treatment for many disease and stress being one of them. It is very hard to look ourselves in the mirror and make some necessary sacrifices to keep ourselves in the gym. Hopefully with a little help from this article, you’ve understood why when life stress increases, which it inevitably will, leaving the gym, stopping your weights, and prioritizing stress over health can be detrimental in the long run. We tend to prioritize work, sedentary activities, and eating poorly over going to the gym, quality time with family and friends, and quality time with ourselves when we are stressed.

There will always be an excuse to stop exercising because there will always be life stress and life imbalance, family priorities, financial priorities, etc. That will never go away. We need to think about focusing our weeks and days on being our best selves so we can be ready for the work issues and overall curveballs that life throws us.  Exercise needs be at the top of our self-care list. Long term stress can be physiologically damaging. While we have the opportunity to help our bodies physiologically and help our minds mentally, we’ll regret not doing something now when it comes to bite us in the ass down the road.  

By Anna Blessing, MS, CCRP