Hit The Gym to Fight Stress!

At the end of a stressful day the last thing we feel like doing is heading to the gym. We'd rather catch up on that long DVR list, or veg out 'till bedtime. But the gym... not so much. However, working out can be a great and rewarding way to fight work related stress. iMag spoke to Dr. Harvey Simon, Embassy Suites Hotels' BusinessBalance.com expert to find out why exercising is so beneficial when it comes to fighting stress.

iMag: After a stressful day at work, how can exercising help reduce stress?

Dr. Simon: Physical activity is a great way to relieve mental stress. Doctors don’t know exactly how it works, but they believe exercise can help by reducing the body’s stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. Exercise may also modify the activity of the nervous system itself. And there are purely psychological effects; paying attention to your body distracts attention from stressful worries, and doing something positive for your health restores your sense of control even when things at work are spinning out of control.

iMag: Are there specific types of exercise that help deal with stress?

Dr. Simon: Almost any type of exercise will help. Many people find that using large muscle groups in a rhythmic, repetitive fashion works best; I call it “muscular meditation”. Walking and jogging are prime examples. Even a simple 20 minute stroll can clear the mind and reduce stress. Some people prefer vigorous workouts that burn stress along with calories; that’s one reason ellipticals are so popular. And stretching exercises, with or without the formal meditation and controlled breathing of yoga, can relax the mind along with the muscles.

iMag: What about breathing exercises, can they help?

Dr. Simon: They sure can. Rapid, shallow, erratic breathing is a common response to stress. Slow, deep, regular breathing is a sign of relaxation. You can learn to control your respirations so they mimic relaxation; the effect, in fact, will be relaxing.

Here's how deep breathing exercises work:

1. Breathe in slowly and deeply, pushing your stomach out so that your diaphragm is put to maximal use.

2. Hold your breath briefly.

3. Exhale slowly, thinking "relax".

4. Repeat the entire sequence five to 10 times over, concentrating on breathing deeply and slowly.

Deep breathing is easy to learn. You can do it at any time, in any place. You can use deep breathing to help dissipate stress as it occurs. Practice the routine in advance, then use it when you need it most. If you find it helpful, consider repeating the exercise four to six times a day — even on good days.

iMag: Some of us need motivation at the end of a long day to get to the gym. What are some things to keep in mind?

Dr. Simon: If you understand all the things exercise can do for you, you’ll be motivated to move your body. As we’ve pointed out, exercise reduces stress. It burns fat and helps you look better. And it’s amazingly important for physical health, lowering blood pressure, improving cholesterol, and reducing blood sugar. Exercise cuts the risk of heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, colon and breast cancers, osteoporosis and fractures, obesity, depression, and even dementia (memory loss.) Exercise slows the aging process, increases energy, and prolongs life.

iMag: If you had to give someone a weekly workout plan for stress-reduction, what would it be?

Dr. Simon: Except during illness, we should all exercise every day. That doesn’t mean hitting the gym or training for a marathon. But it does mean 30-40 minutes of moderate exercise such as walking or 15-20 minutes of vigorous exercise. More is even better, but the first steps provide the most benefit. Aim to walk at least 2 miles a day, or do the equivalent amount of another activity. You can do it all at once or in 10-15 minute chunks if that fits your schedule better. Add a little strength training and stretching 2-3 times a week, and you’ll have an excellent, balanced program for health and life.

Harvey B. Simon, M.D. is a graduate of Yale College and Harvard Medical School . He completed his training at the Massachusetts General Hospital and the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Simon is currently an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and a member of the Health Sciences Technology Faculty at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the founding editor of Harvard Men’s Health Watch, a monthly newsletter, and the author of six consumer health books, including The Harvard Medical School Guide to Men’s Health (Simon and Schuster, 2002) and The No Sweat Exercise Plan. Lose Weight, Get Healthy and Live Longer (McGraw-Hill, 2006). Dr. Simon was a founding member of the Harvard Cardiovascular Health Center ; he practices at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston . His educational activities were recognized by Harvard and MIT, which jointly honored him with the London Prize for Excellence in Teaching.

About BusinessBalance.com: BusinessBalance.com, developed by Embassy Suites Hotels, is a recently launched website offering practical advice for putting business travelers’ needs first, even on hectic work days. Embassy Suites knows that business travel can take a toll on one’s well-being and the expert counsel found on BusinessBalance.com provides techniques and tips to help visitors find and maintain their own balance– both on and off the road.

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