Why stress management is key to physical and mental fitness

Stress is the body’s reaction to a challenge or a demand. We cannot escape from stress but we can learn to manage it well to ensure physical and mental health - and our sanity.
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The human body is innately designed in such a way that all its organs, bones, muscles, tissues work in synchrony. Even the slightest alteration in the function of any one element leads to dysfunction and slows us down.

It’s not only our body; the mind also has a big role to play. The thought of a tiger chasing you can set your heart racing, and the stress about the COVID pandemic impacted everyone differently. We must understand how innately our mind is linked to our body and how any effect on our mental health will directly or indirectly impact our physical health and vice versa.

What is stress?

Stress is the body’s reaction to a challenge or a demand. We cannot escape from stress but we can learn to manage it well to ensure physical and mental health - and our sanity.

When we’re stressed, our bodies perceive an imminent threat. When the stress becomes constant so does the feeling of threat. In response, our glands release adrenaline and cortisol so we can fight or find a way to escape (hence the so-called fight-or-flight response).

Cortisol puts the body in a fat storage mode and this is the reason for the belly pouch and also the reason why stress can amp up your appetite and make you crave sugary, fatty comfort foods.

Prolonged exposure to stress can cause prolonged release of cortisol, which can cause your muscles to break down at a faster rate as compared to when you’re composed.

Now imagine the compound effect of muscle breakdown, eating high calorie sugary salty meals and increased fat storage in the body. It leads to metabolic disorders like diabetes, hypertension, obesity, hormonal fluctuations, infertility, and a lot of other health complications.

Stress and fitness: the connection

Stress and fitness are connected to each other in an antithetical manner; when one factor changes, it can impact the other significantly.

Stress causes a rise in cortisol which can cause weight gain, lowered cardiovascular and muscular endurance levels, lowered muscle strength, reduced flexibility, weakened immunity, increase in blood pressure levels, disordered circadian cycle, and very slow recovery.

In this way, every component of one’s physical fitness as a whole is impacted.

This simply means that an increase in stress will lead to low fitness levels and a decrease in stress will promote high fitness levels.

What is the solution?

Stress is best managed by a holistic, balanced, and consistent approach.

Simple acts like eating the right food at the right time, maintaining good sleep hygiene, and working out regularly can reduce cortisol levels in the body.

It is extremely important to focus on one day at a time because stress numbs our ability to think logically and we may not be able to stick with a routine despite knowing the benefits. So take it one day at a time, one meal at a time - every single day - to reduce stress and enhance fitness.

A few quick tips

Pay attention to what triggers a stressful reaction in you. This will help you to pause and, if possible, avoid the trigger completely or cause a reduced reaction. It teaches you how to exercise foresight, and figure out ways to better cope with obstacles and setbacks.

Exercise regularly. Try whatever you’re most comfortable with. Stretching increases your body’s mobility and decreases tension. Try different workouts to eliminate boredom.

Get enough sleep. Sleep is incredibly important because your body cleans, repairs, and resets itself while you’re asleep – including your brain. A lack of sleep could increase ghrelin (your hunger hormone) and decrease leptin (the hormone indicating that you’re full), which could result in overeating and in turn make you feel dull throughout the day.

Eat small meals frequently. This ensures stable blood glucose levels through the day and help you manage your day better.

Choose fresh, clean, and whole foods. Eat nutrient dense meals like fruits, vegetables, lean meats, good fats, and whole grains.

Meditate. This will help clear your mind and relax your body.

Connect with your loved ones regularly. Expressing your feelings can help reduce the impact of stress on the body.

Take a walk. Stepping out in a garden or amid nature to get a breath of fresh air will help you destress.

Stay hydrated.

Effective stress management is integral to fitness because individuals who experience acute episodic or chronic stress are at increased risk for developing stress-related health problems.

It is also important to consider stressors and physical activity hurdles, and focus on workouts you will enjoy as joy helps reduce stress and its impact.

It is important to discuss this aspect with your trainer before planning a workout routine. Discuss this with your doctor as well as some people may need additional assistance for managing stress and major life stressors.

Edited by Teja Lele Desai

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

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