We are in the thick of it now. It’s that time of year when the seasonal stressors can take their toll if we allow them to. It’s the Purim-Pesach season. This means all the Purim preparations– arranging a Purim Seuda, buying everything you need, preparing and delivering your Meshloach Manos — and the second Purim is over, it is EREV PESACH! Cleaning, Kashering, cooking, Seder preparations, Chol HaMoed plans, guests, sleeping arrangements—and only 30 days to have it all done. Now let’s throw in something no one wants to hear—if you want to get through this period of time and enjoy Purim and Pesach, then make time to use our number one stress manager—EXERCISE!
This is the time of the year when I see many of my clients tense up and develop a sense of hopelessness. “I’ll never get it all done” is a common feeling and that, in turn, brings the feeling of “overwhelmed” into our lives. As a coach, when I hear that from a client or sense that this is the case, the first thing is to put things in order and perspective. What is the plan and how is it to be executed? When there is a plan and a person figures out what he or she has to do and they schedule it, that overwhelming feeling can quickly disappear. Also, it is essential not to try to control things that we just can’t control. Pesach is going to happen on the 15th of Nissan, you can’t change that. But the number of guests you invite to your Seder is under your control as is how much food you intend to prepare and serve. But no matter how much you plan and schedule, putting exercise into that schedule can be the key.
75% of the general population experiences at least “some stress” every two weeks according to the National Health Interview Survey. In response to acute stress, the body’s sympathetic nervous system is activated due to the sudden release of hormones. The sympathetic nervous system stimulates the adrenal glands triggering the release of adrenaline and noradrenalin. This results in an increase in heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate. After the threat is gone, it takes between 20 to 60 minutes for the body to return to its pre-arousal levels. The fight-or-flight response is also known as the acute stress response. Essentially, the response prepares the body to either fight or flee the threat. It is also important to note that the response can be triggered due to both real and imaginary threats. Imagine yourself driving along a road near your house. Suddenly a car zooms out of nowhere. You slam on the brakes just in time to avoid an accident. That’s the stress response at its best.
There are three regions of the brain that control the stress response: The Amygdala, which detects, treats and triggers the fight-or-flight response; the Prefrontal Cortex, which helps us deal calmly with stress, and can shut down the fight-or-flight response; and the hippocampus, which supports our stress recovery. Neroscientists now know that chronic stress can change these brain regions in a way that makes us more sensitive and less resilient to stress. When we have stress all the time, these areas weaken and the brain gets worse at managing stress. When this goes on for a prolonged period of time, these changes in the brain can lead to depression, cardiovascular disease and accelerated aging. But exercise can be a way to manage or even cure stress. Let’s see how that works.
Numerous studies in 2011 and 2012 have shown that exercise has shown tremendous promise as a neuroprotective intervention. Exercise protects our brains from stress in several ways. When we exercise (and the more intense we can exercise the better the result) we increase something called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which maintains brain health. Not only does exercise give us more BDNF, it also triggers the brain’s self-repair processes. And last, exercise also activates the brain’s self-calming system by releasing a neurotransmitter called GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid) in order to restore balance in the autonomic nervous system. Perhaps the most encouraging research is that for someone who makes exercise a part of his or her life, exercise can create a STRESS RESISTANT BRAIN! (Fleshner et. al. 2011).
The question is how much does one need to exercise and at what intensity? Intense exercise is good, but intense exercise for a prolonged period of time is not good for our cardiovascular system, our immune system or our brains. So it seems that moderate exercise for less than an hour at a time brings the best results. Over training, meaning intense exercise for a prolonged period of time can have the opposite effect of what we are trying to achieve. An over-trained athlete can actually develop exaggerated stress response and fail to recover between his workouts. That results in elevated stress hormones, and instead of exercise giving us long-term protection against stress, it amplifies our stress.
Remember that exercise in all of its forms, aerobic and resistance training does help us manufacture more of the feel-good neurotransmitters in our brains, serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. These are the same hormones that anti-depressant medications work on! The now famous SMILE (Standard Medical Intervention and Long-term Exercise) study at Duke University in 1999 the researchers followed 156 patients between the ages of 50 and 77 who had been diagnosed with major depressive disorder (MDD). They were randomly assigned to one of three groups: exercise, medication or a combination of medication and exercise.
The exercise group spent 30 minutes either riding a stationary bicycle or walking or jogging three times a week. The anti-depressant used by the medication group was sertraline (trade name Zoloft), which is a member of a class of commonly used anti-depressants known as selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors. To the surprise of the researchers, after 16 weeks, all three groups showed statistically significant and identical improvement in standard measurements of depression, implying that exercise is just as effective as medication in treating major depression and it doesn’t have the negative side effects of the various medications.
At a time when energy can run low, keep in mind that exercise will give you more energy when you need it most. It will put you in a better mood and the frame of mind you might need to get all of your cleaning done. We are all familiar with the wonderful physiological advantages of exercising that help prevent heart disease, cancer, diabetes and a host of other diseases. But we now know that exercise can help us in our battle against all types of daily stress. Reducing stress through exercise will “add hours to your day, days to your year, and years to your life.”