Over the past year, I've been making both macro- and micro-changes to improve the way I work and the way I live. Recommitting to sleep and disconnecting from my devices are two very important adjustments that have changed my life for the better.
But, I needed to work on one area - being more physically active. Given my work and travel schedule, the excuses were easy - I'm too busy, too tired, not able to commit regularly, don't like gyms ... the list goes on. I'm an avid walker but don't always have time to take an hour-long walk each day.
I have my husband to thank for many things, but his own commitment to exercise inspired me to get moving (pun intended) and make fitness a priority. He introduced me to his trainer, Sean Killelea, owner of S&R Performance, who is also now my trainer. Sean has helped me find a way to bring more movement into my day - which helps me physically and mentally. So, I've asked Sean to share some of his insights below for managing stress through exercise and tips that might help you push past the excuses too. Over to you Sean...
Sean's insights on the science of stress & exercise
I was delighted when Ellyn asked me to contribute to this blog because so many of my executive clients are looking for ways to reduce stress in their lives. When we are under stress, our body reacts by releasing stress hormones - adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol - into our bloodstream. This causes our heart to pound, muscles to tense and breathing to quicken. The first two hormones have their place in appropriately dealing with stress, so that we don't become ill. However, cortisol release over time can negatively affect our bodies and contribute to hypertension, poor posture and obesity.
As stress builds up over time, our body begins to feel this - many times leading to fatigue or illness. In turn, if our bodies feel better, so will our minds. When we exercise and take part in physical activity, we release chemicals that act as painkillers - called endorphins. Regular exercise can fight feelings of depression and anxiety, improve sleep, lower blood pressure, and decrease body fat - all stress-related conditions many executives struggle with given the pressures of their jobs
Pushing past the excuses
We know there are many great benefits of resistance and cardiovascular training. However, we need to get out of the mindset that exercise must be long and separate from our day. I work with my clients (many of whom are sedentary - working behind a desk or on planes and in airports) on micro-changes. They don't require long, one-hour grinds in the gym but instead are "portable" and can be incorporated into the natural flow of their work and home life. Below are some tips to consider:
Take a breath. When was the last breath you took while reading this? Are you holding your breath? Are your shoulders and chest moving while you're breathing? Practicing diaphragmatic breathing will help down-regulate the sympathetic state that occurs when stressed. Lie on your back with both knees bent, one hand on your abdomen and the other on your chest. Inhale from your nose into your belly to push the hand on your abdomen up. The hand on your chest should not move. Exhale through your mouth, allowing your belly to come back down. Exhaling should double the time of your inhale. Try this for five minutes throughout the day.
Sit up straight. Now, take a second to check your posture. Are you sitting upright, or are you hunched over with rounded shoulders, a protruded neck and likely an anterior tilt in your pelvis? Work on your posture throughout the day. If you're on the train or at the printer, try this: Lift your chin up and back; lift your sternum (chest bone); contract your abs; and then squeeze your butt and quads. Hold that squeeze for 30 seconds. You just put yourself in great posture. Now, do that a few times a day! Also, many people with sedentary jobs complain of back pain. It is likely a result of poor posture and overactive/underactive muscles. Have a fitness professional take you through a body assessment to evaluate what muscular imbalances you may have developed.
Get your Z's. Be sure you're getting quality hours of REM sleep. Lack of sleep can disrupt hormonal release, hurt your immune system, and have negative effects on health. If you're getting good rest, you'll have the energy to build in time for exercise. If you work long days, go to bed and wake up 10, 20, or 40 minutes earlier to exercise before work. Doing so may be difficult at first, but you will soon get into a routine and feel more energized throughout the day.
No time? Exercise does not have to be done in one long chunk. High-Intensity Interval Training has proven to show major benefits. Use the time you have - 10 minutes of exercise is still 10 minutes more than nothing. Perform exercises throughout the day! Begin to park in the farthest spot of the parking lot. Walk up the stairs to your office. If you work 20 floors up, walk the last 3-5 flights. Take a bathroom break - even if you don't have to go to the bathroom - to get some extra steps in.
Make it portable. Exercise can be done anywhere - home or hotel - and you don't need a lot of fancy equipment. You can get in a full workout with an orb or lacrosse ball (for self-myofascial release), a few resistance bands, a yoga mat - and you. Be creative and use the bed, chair or dresser in your hotel room. Ellyn has found great success while packing her luggage with minimal and lightweight equipment to complete routines that involve dynamic stretching, mobility exercises and resistance training. Here's a picture of Ellyn's work out in Ireland and the gear she travels with, sans the mat. Given that she travels there frequently, the team got her a mat and she stores it at the office.
Make it fun. Exercise should not be torture. You won't do it if you dread it. Find an activity or sport that interests you. Leave your phone and disconnect from work. Treat this time as "me" time. If you need extra motivation, enlist a friend as a workout buddy or invest in a trainer to design a program that's right you.
Ellyn's reflections & results
I cannot thank Sean enough for sharing these tips today and, most importantly, helping me work toward my fitness goals. The bottom line is that physical activity was a missing piece to my overall well-being. With Sean's help, I've filled that gap and now feel healthier and stronger. As a wife, mom, daughter, sister and friend, I'm more engaged and energized. As a leader, I'm more present and creative. And, I'm a better problem- solver when I pay more attention to my physical and mental wellness. What tips do you have for building fitness into your busy life? How has it affected you at work? At home? As a leader?
And, for those of you in or near Westchester County in New York, I'd highly recommend Sean or his partner Rob Ferrari at S&R Performance to help you meet your fitness goals. S&R Performance designs individual programs to meet sport-specific or daily function needs. All programs are based on body mechanic evaluations and sessions can be 1:1 or with groups in sports or corporate settings.