10 Simple Ways to Reduce Chronic Stress for Improved Fitness

Thanks to today's fast-paced, technology-centric world coupled with sedentary lifestyles, we are bombarded constantly with low and high levels of mental, physical, emotional and physiological stress. These chronic stresses are inhibiting our bodies' natural self-repair mechanisms that fix broken proteins, kill cancer cells, retard aging and fight infections (more on that from Dr. Lissa Rankin). We are the most overweight, under active generation in history existing on diets of processed foods and suffering from damaging mindsets. We're walking around under-slept like zombies and are beating the $@#!*% out of our adrenal glands. In this post I'll explore some practical, scientifically proven methods for reducing stress that can take as little as one minute/day. 

How Do You Know If You Are Over Stressed?

Stress accumulates over time and often we're so used to it that we're not attuned to it. Symptoms of chronic stress include fatigue. loss of muscle strength and mass, accumulation of body fat (especially in the abdomen), depression, osteoporosis and bone deterioration, cardiovascular disease, reduced libido and sexual dysfunction, anxiety, hot flashes and sudden loss absence of menstruation (source). 

What Can You Do?

Like so many things, we tend to be perfectionist in our approach to stress reduction. Take meditation for example. We expect to go from never having mediated to becoming a Buddhist monk instantly and achieving Nirvana in an hour. And if we aren't perfect at it immediately, we get frustrated and quit. Here's a secret: you don't have to do any of this perfectly. It may sound all "woo woo" but no one is perfect at mediation. It's a practice. For all of the techniques below the results will come just from trying and from being consistent. 

Pick Just One Thing

Below I've identified 10 helpful ways of reducing stress. Some you can do in just one minute/day. Some will take longer. I suggest PICKING JUST ONE from the list below and trying it for a few weeks. If you try to do too many, you'll likely get frustrated, more stressed and give up. Once that one thing becomes part of your normal routine, then you can pick another if you wish. Trust me. Start with one thing that you know you can do consistently. 

Belly Breathing

Your diaphragm is your best friend when it comes to breathing and quickly calming your central nervous system. Because of the way we tend to sit (squishing this important muscle) many of us are stuck breathing through our secondary respiration muscles (i.e. chest breathing). This stimulates our "fight or flight" mechanisms and leads to chronic low level stress which wreaks havoc on the body. Practicing diaphragmatic breathing for as little as 1 minute/day is a great way to naturally lower your stress and stimulate your "rest and digest" mechanisms. Check out this guide from the good folks at the Clevland Clinic to get started. 

Stand up, Move and Stretch

We sit too damn much. Sitting causing chronic muscular tightness, stiff joints and poor breathing habits. Most of us sit for our jobs. Here's the kicker, sitting also wreaks havoc on your productivity. It literally makes us slow, stupid and groggy. So stand up! Try and get up at least once/hour to start. Stand, stretch and walk around. Open your chest, practice some belly breaths, walk to the water fountain and get hydrated. Here are some of my favorite shoulder, hip, neck and total body stretches. For a deep dive on workplace ergo and stretches, checkout this preso. And if you'd like me to present this at your workplace, give me a shout and we'll arrange it! 

Mediation

This is the one where people tend to be overly perfectionistic. What is meditation? I like this definition from Psychology Today: "Meditation is the practice of turning your attention to a single point of reference. It can involve focusing on the breath, on bodily sensations, or on a word or phrase known as a mantra. In other words, meditation means turning your attention away from distracting thoughts and focusing on the present moment." There are lots of great suggestions for how to meditate but there's no right or wrong way. Simply put, the goal is to try (TRY!) to quiet the mind and relax the body (we're not always 100% successful). It can be done anywhere, anytime: on MUNI, at your desk, in the gym or on the couch and for any length of time (from one minute to several hours). Don't underestimate the power of a 1-5 minute meditation. If you're having trouble, check out this link for some helpful tips or you can use an App like Headspace or the Equinox App for guided mediations.

Go for a Walk

If you are sitting at your desk, stressed about a deliverable and you find your energy, creativity and problem-solving levels are low, the best thing you can do for your body and your brain is to get up for a few minutes and walk around, oxygenate the body and get your joints moving.  As I mentioned above, sitting compresses our diaphragms which reduces our oxygen intake which means less oxygen to the brain which means we think slower. If you step away and walk to the water cooler or better yet around the block for some fresh air/sunlight for 5-10 minutes your ability to work, solve problems and not rip your coworkers apart will notably improve. 

Put Your Feet in Grass

Ok, this one may sound a little "woo woo" for some folks, but seriously, it's legit. Studies have shown that "earthing" or "grounding" improves blood viscosity, heart rate variability, inflammation, cortisol dynamics, sleep, autonomic nervous system (ANS) balance and reduces effects of stress. Grounding or Earthing is defined as "placing one's bare feet on the ground whether it be dirt, grass, sand or concrete (especially when humid or wet). When you ground to the electron-enriched earth, an improved balance of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system occurs." Have an open mind and checkout this info from Dr. Mercola for more details and tips.

Limit Exposure to Blue Light/Devices

Your iPhone, iPad, lap top and any other devices that emit blue light jack up your "fight or flight" mechanisms. Not a great thing to do before bedtime or when you are feeling stressed and anxious. So put those devices down and definitely try and minimize their use in the hour before bedtime. Checkout this post for more details.  

Try a Power Pose

Keep an open mind on this one. Because at first I rolled my eyes. But then I had attendees at one of my corporate classes try it and immediately everyone started laughing, their posture improved and their breathing depended. When I went back next month some of the folks reported that they continued the practice on their own and (GASP) it worked. Check out this Ted Talk from Harvard Business School professor and researcher Amy Cuddy. Cuddy's research found that doing two simple 1-minute "power poses" can elevate testosterone, decrease cortisol and increase feelings of power and tolerance for risk. Become your own super hero! 

Try 1 of the 12 Pillars of Nutrition 

Our modern diet is a mess. We're bombarded with high calorie, sugar-laden over-processed crap everywhere. Many of us "think" we know what we should eat, but the multi-billion dollar food industry has so many tricks up its sleeve that it can become a full time job to "eat clean". Plus many of us are under-slept which is causing our brains to scream for sugary, carb heavy treats to give our brains glucose. Where to start?!?! I suggest picking one of the 12 Pillars of Nutrition and trying it for a month to start your journey to eating "mostly" clean. Click here for the full scoop. 

Get 10 Minutes More Sleep

We are the most sleep deprived people ever. Sleep deprivation completely messes with our body's de-stressing, memory compiling and hormone cycling functions which has our parasympathetic nervous systems (responsible for "Rest, Digest, Restoration and Recovery") totally whacked. I speak a lot on the importance of sleep at my corporate clients and coach my personal training clients on small, manageable improvements they can make to their sleep set up. Check out this presentation for loads of helpful info. If you are under-slept try getting just 10 more minutes/day to start seeing some noticeable improvements. Two ways of doing that include nixing the devices before bed and making sure you are sleeping in the right position

Purify Your Air With Plants

Check out this article for some excellent suggestions, based on NASA research, on what plants to put in your home and office to improve your health and naturally reduce stress. "Indoor air pollutants have been ranked among the top five environmental risks to public health: Stagnant indoor environments allow pollutants to build up and stick around in greater amounts than we humans should be breathing in. Living and working in places rife with air contaminants and lacking decent ventilation can cause "sick building syndrome," which can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea, and eye, ear, and nose irritation. Lucky for us, NASA scientists have been working to understand this problem and find solutions. Their space-age solution was an easy one that anyone can use: Use houseplants to clean the air."

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