Exercise and physical activity, similar to food provides information to your body. The information given to your body through exercise or physical activity can be health promoting or health depleting. It can help decrease your stress and balance your hormones; or, it can increase your stress and imbalance your hormones. Having grown up an athlete swimming and playing on tennis, golf, basketball, field hockey, volley ball and lacrosse teams; I am aware of both the beneficial and stressful aspects of exercise. Also, being an avid outdoor person who has led canoeing and hiking trips into the wilderness for weeks at a time, I am aware of both the beneficial and stressful aspects of physical activity. All physical movement, whether it be training for a competition or participating in recreational activities, is stressful to your system. Whether this stress is beneficial or not depends on a number of things.
First, pushing ourselves or increasing the intensity of physical activity or exercise is a necessary stress to get stronger and build our endurance. But pushing ourselves or increasing intensity should be done gradually in a step wise approach as one gets “in shape”. The lifestyle of the “the weekend warrior” who spends Saturday and Sunday trashing their body but does no exercise during the week is not a healthy lifestyle. This pattern actually increases a person’s cortisol, which sets them up for more injuries, depletes their energy and throws off all metabolic and hormonal balance.
As I have aged and reached the peak of my career, I have become very familiar with time constraints that prevent me from getting to the gym and staying in shape for the level of activity I want to do on the weekends or during my vacations. I learned this lesson well in 2014 during a vacation week in Maine at Baxter State Park. During this vacation I hiked, canoed, and fished every day. The final hike of that week was a twelve-hour trek up Pamola Peak, across the knifes edge to Baxter Peak, and then down the saddle trail back to Chimney Pond Campground. I awoke the next morning with whole body swelling that took a couple of days to slowly subside. Being a physician, I realized that the swelling was due to rhabdomyolysis; which occurs when your kidneys cannot keep up with filtering the amount of myoglobin (a protein), released from your muscles during intense exercise. I had pushed my body beyond what it could handle at that time and my kidneys were blocked up as a result. Luckily, the answer was to rest and drink lots of water to dilute the concentration of the myoglobin and allow my kidneys to correct the imbalance I had caused. While this situation did not require a trip to the emergency room, it does not mean it did not cause any problems or was without consequence.
We must realize that balance is key when it comes to stress, hormones and exercise. We require exercise and physical activity in our lives to be healthy and we should push ourselves to get stronger, but this should happen always with balance in mind. We have been led to believe that it takes long hours of high intensity, gut wrenching, and sweat drenching exercise to get in shape and be healthy, but this is just not true! This level of exercise increases cortisol and throws off hormonal balances and is actually depleting to the system. If you visualize in your mind a marathon runner, you see a very thin and depleted appearing physique. If you now visualize a sprinter, you see a lean but muscular and strong physique. As we age past 30 years old, we start to lose bone and muscle mass unless we do something to maintain it and build it up. If someone is struck by an acute infection or illness they need the proteins from their muscles to give them the energy and endurance to fight the illness. Therefore, it is very important to maintain muscle mass as we age. Muscles also require more glucose from our food and as a result utilize more calories. Therefore, maintaining muscle mass will keep insulin and blood sugar in better balance and keep the development of fat cells down. The over development of fat cells not only widens one’s belly, but also throws off one’s hormonal balance. For example, fat cells can produce and store excess estrogen as well as toxins and both put us at increased risk of multiple chronic diseases.
So, what type of exercise, for how long, and at what intensity is healthy? Well, besides always keeping balance in mind, the second most important point is weight resistance exercise is a very basic form of exercise that everyone can do no matter what their starting point and it does not take long to do.
Lifting weights at home or in a gym three times per week for 20 to 30 minutes with 10 to 20 minutes of aerobic activity over 12 weeks will build muscle, energy and endurance and provide improved hormonal balance in anyone. The amount of weight one lifts after doing some warm up sets or exercises should be to “Failure”. This means that if you are doing 10-12 repetitions of bicep curls; for example, the last repetition should feel very difficult as if you could not do another. The purpose of lifting the weight during each exercise to failure is to maintain the exercise at a high intensity, but for a short burst of time. The intensity is also kept at a high level by not resting for more than one minute between each set or exercise. The point of this program is to stress, but not overstress your body in short, high intensity bursts of exercise.
And, if you do the math 40 minutes of the right type of exercise three times per week adds up to only 2 hours per week; and if you keep this up for 12 weeks you will have improved your health and put a DENT in your stress in only 24 hours!
My DENT curriculum is taught to clients over a 4 to 6-month period and includes an entire section on exercise. The “E” portion of my program educates clients on exercise physiology and helps them understand why they may not have been successful with their exercise in the past. It also emphasizes that exercise is not just for those who know they can, but also for those who think they can’t. My program has 3 levels, so a person starts at a basic level and once comfortable builds on their success with more advanced levels. The DENT curriculum also includes learning through reading, videos and live supportive classes.
The answer to putting a DENT in your stress through Exercises is to realize that you must move to decrease stress, but that you also must not over do because the right balance is key. A variety of movement is also key. Walking, dancing, hiking, biking, rowing, are all great forms of aerobic exercises; but, adding weight resistance exercise 3 days per week for 20-30 minutes at a high intensity will make all the difference in the world in putting a DENT in your stress.