Protective Factors for Self-Care: Exercise
Posted on April 21, 2017
Sleep refreshes the body’s systems and keeps our mind active and engaged in our work. Exercise, the second protective factor we’ll discuss in this series, is also critical to help manage the chemical reality of having stressful jobs. In intense occupations like ours, exercise is one of the best ways (if not the best) to release work stress. Of course, consult you medical provider before starting any exercise regimen!
Exercise has many benefits, including its capacity to lower weight, improve mood, and increase overall health. What may not be as well-known, though, is what exercise does for a person’s brain in their battle against stress. Exercise is a counterbalance to a life filled with too many demands, responsibilities, and deadlines. A good workout helps ensure that the stress hormone cortisol does not stay in the body and wreak havoc on everything from the heart to the immune system.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone that prepares a person for physical action. Throughout human evolution, most stress has required a physical response to help a person either run away from a predator or fight an enemy. Human evolution has not caught up with today’s rapidly changing work environment, where stressful situations require an intellectual, not physical, response.
If allowed to remain in the body, cortisol can become toxic and is linked to early onset Alzheimer’s and other long-term physical, mental, and social problems. The brain cannot handle being under constant stress. Eventually, cortisol starts to kill off brain cells associated with memory and intellectual functioning. If a person has a stressful day, exercising may be the last thing they want to do. However, fitting in a good workout can dramatically improve the rest of the day, and lets the body and mind recover fully.
Visualize exercise as a release at the bottom of your cup. As stress fills our cup throughout the day, a good workout opens the release valve, and the stress flows out the bottom. This release is why exercise is so important for those working in stressful situations. If stress is not released, it just sits in the cup and accounts for many of the dangers we mentioned in an earlier post. I include them here in case you need a little motivation to get a workout in today!
If you need further motivation, people who exercise have larger prefrontal cortexes, the area of the brain responsible for higher level thinking. In addition to healthier and larger prefrontal cortexes, exercise helps create new neurons in the brain, a process called neurogenesis. Neurogenesis and the removal of cortisol helps us improve our ability to learn and memory. Also, exercise protects the brain from injury and aging.
Exercise also delivers emotional benefits. Think for a moment about how it feels to run, walk in the park, or take a bike ride. Usually, people report feeling an emotional lift. This lift increases energy levels and gives us more robustness to face the challenges of the day. Regular exercise has been shown to increase our overall mental health. Since exercise lowers the level of stress and cortisol in a person’s cup, they increase their ability to regulate emotions and engage cognitively in complex work.
Studies done with those suffering from depression clearly document the power of exercise. Getting 30-45 minutes of vigorous exercise six days a week can lower depression as effectively as psychotropic medication (Rock, 2009). While this is not a suggestion to stop medications, it does show that exercise can powerfully improve everyone’s mental health. Exercising makes us happier and gives us the energy they need to live a fulfilled life, both at work and beyond.
The goal for most of us should be to eventually get up to exercising six times a week, at an intensity that works up a good sweat. This consistency may seem like a far-off goal, though, so we just need to start where we are. Walk around the block at lunch, take the stairs and not the elevator, jog for a bit and then walk the rest of the way briskly. The key is to do something active and try to build up more and more stamina. The positive effects will show in the body and brain almost immediately.
As the weather starts turning nice in most parts of the country, it is an ideal time to set a goal around exercise. Maybe you could walk an extra couple of miles a week, pick up tennis again, or start that yoga class. In my research, I struggle to see how we can avoid burnout and other dangers without getting the cortisol out of our system. If exercising for your health is not motiving, the research above shows that it will help you become a smarter and better helper.
What impact has exercise had on your life and your self-care?