Scientists agree that sport is a good antidote to stress in two ways. When we exercise, the stress hormone cortisol is broken down and the happiness hormones endorphin and serotonin are simultaneously released. This reduces tension and makes us feel good. Moderate endurance sport has the greatest impact in this respect – but it is also worth exercising regularly on a daily basis.
In the Stone Age, the lives of our ancestors entailed high levels of stress. There was the risk that a saber-toothed tiger could come round the corner at any minute and kill them. The stress reaction was ‘fight or flight’. Both of these options involve movement. The stress hormones released as part of the stress reaction – particularly cortisol – were broken down by movement, which also caused the individual’s pulse, heart rate and blood pressure to return to normal. Muscles were able to relax and the body recovered. That is important to prevent stress levels from remaining elevated – resulting in the development of chronic illness.
So what is the situation today? Do we still move around as much as our ancestors did in the Stone Age? The answer is: not really. Many of us have become ‘couch potatoes’ since – at first glance – it seems more relaxing after a tiring day at work to simply stretch out on the sofa rather than engaging in physical exercise. However, that is the wrong approach. While it is true that our rate of breathing, blood pressure and heart rate decrease when we are lying on the couch, our muscles remain tense and the stress hormones that were released earlier continue to circulate in the body. The thing that helps to address this is exercise. It enables stress hormones to be broken down much more rapidly and effectively than when we put our feet up and do nothing.
Exercise makes you happy
And there is a second positive effect if we don’t laze around: Exercise produces the hormones endorphin and serotonin, which neutralize stress hormones and, at the same time, produce a feeling of happiness. Those of you who engage in endurance sport may perhaps know the ‘flow feeling’ that results from moderate (not excessive) exercise – ideally lasting 30 to 60 minutes. Following physical exercise, you are not only really relaxed but also feel uplifted.
What is important is for you to enjoy doing sport. Don’t place yourself under even more pressure to perform well – instead, take a playful attitude towards it. When jogging, for example, don’t set yourself a fixed target or always look at your watch. Go to the woods and try to walk along the top of logs while keeping your balance. This exercise puts the entire body to the test without the need to deliver a measurable performance.
On the topic of woodland: Taking exercise outdoors is especially good for your health. This is because the body produces vitamin D, and the color green and fresh air also help to reduce stress. A study by the University of Essex has shown that even just spending five minutes outdoors in a green landscape has a positive effect on our psyche.
My passion: dancing
Alternatively, you could take my approach and go dancing. It is physically exerting, burns up calories and is really enjoyable (at least, for enthusiasts like me). Another benefit is that when you dance, you focus on the moment in time and don’t think about everyday worries – and the aesthetic movement increases your awareness of your body.
Even people who don’t enjoy sport can find ways of breaking down stress hormones. Simply walk instead of taking the escalator or elevator, get off the tram one stop early, or – if you have to spend hours sitting down – get up every so often and stretch. In other words: no more excuses! Let’s get moving!
© Claudia Kraaz