Food, fitness, stress – the three buzziest words in wellness right now, and rightly so.
According to the Labor Force Survey more than 11.7 million working days were lost to stress, anxiety and depression during 2015/16 in the UK. This figure will rise again in 2017.
In the current digital age it’s likely that you spend more time with your phone than your friends, driving a sense of needing to be constantly on. Originally, smart phones were invented to improve your work/life balance, allowing you to exit the office on time – or perhaps slightly early – and finish off your business at home. They were meant to reduce excessive working hours.
However, in practice, long desk hours haven’t gone anywhere and when you do finally leave the office you answer emails late into the night. This close relationship with an army of gadgetry means you never quite let go and your brain has no downtime.
Why a HIIT workout won’t necessarily help
Exercise has long been known to have a positive effect on stress and stress management, but choosing the right mode of exercise is key.
HIIT training and hardcore bootcamp style classes are an excellent way of improving body composition (read: losing fat, fast) but if your nervous system is struggling to manage stress, be it work, family or relationships, they’re the last thing your body needs. That’s because, whilst there certainly is an endorphin ‘high’ that comes from high intensity training, what you are also doing is over-stimulating an already stressed nervous system.
The better workout to do
It’s important to think about the level of stress that a workout puts on your body to ensure an existing problem isn’t exaggerated. Generally speaking, slower, more mindful classes are better because they’re less taxing and help you control your breathing.
Lower intensity cardio training, or LISS as it’s so often referenced online, can counter balance a frantic lifestyle. This is because it is less demanding on an overworked central nervous system and often is quite meditative.
Likewise more movement quality based practices (yoga, pilates, other ‘flow’ type systems) act as the Yin to the Yang of daily life.
Signs that you’re stressed
How your sit, stand and move or exercise does – believe it or not – have an impact on stress. That’s because biomechanics and psychology, the brain and body in laymen terms, are mutually dependent.
Physiologically your sympathetic ganglia (the parts of your brain that stimulate the sympathetic nervous system) are not actually situated in the skull, but rather in the thoracic spine. Therefore when your are in an extension posture (a common side effect of stress) you compress these ganglia, stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, and become even more extended, more stimulated and so on… fantastic if you’re in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Not so if you want to sleep at night or move your body with ease.
Next, think about how many times you’ve been told to ‘stand up straight, chest up shoulders back’. It’s a common phrase that’s thrown around to improve posture and exercise technique. However, improving your posture takes more than a conscious effort not to slump in your chair.
Posture is actually a highly integrated coordination of multiple systems that the brain arranges to control your centre of mass against gravity – phew, if that sounds like a mouthful its because it is! It is how the brain organises the body to carry out tasks, or simply get through the day-to-day. E.g. when something shifts one way, somewhere something else in the kinetic chain must shift the other way. Think of it as a gigantic living game of Jenga.
Biomechanically, when you assume an extension posture (chest up, shoulders back) you can exert more power and produce more force, however this is sympathetic nervous system dominance. To lower stress and enter rest and recovery mode the parasympathetic nervous system needs to dominate and this generally happens in flexion posture.
How to create balance
Press pause – If you cant actually do anything about that email there and then– then there is no point in reading it. It can wait until tomorrow
Have some delineation – have some non negotiable time out each week. Date night with a significant other, catching up with friends, watching your kids play sport, or even taking a dog for a walk. Where phones, emails, Instagram are not allowed – be present in the moment rather than trying to upload it.
Breathe – take some time to breathe and understand the effect this has on both physical and emotional wellbeing. 5-10 minutes before you go to bed can have a profound effect on quality of sleep.
Exhale – failing to exhale fully will exaggerate extension. Make a conscious effort to slow your breathing and empty your lungs to promote neutral posture.
Balance – don’t try to remedy feeling stressed by putting your body through more stress. Instead, choose activities that are proven to lower cortisol