Welcome to Day 11 of HuffPost Healthy Living's 14-Day Stress-Less Challenge! In honor of National Stress Awareness Month, our goal is to use these two weeks to focus on becoming less stressed and more calm. Today's expert is Matthew Stults-Kolehmainen, Ph.D., a kinesiologist at the Yale Stress Center. Read through today's challenge, then tell us -- either in the comments, on Facebook or @HealthyLiving -- how it's going. Just joining us? Catch up on what you've missed here and sign up to receive newsletters for the rest of the challenge here.
Exercise is just as important for stress reduction as it is for weight management and long-term cardiovascular health.
Exercise can attack stress in two ways, explains Stults-Kolehmainen. There is the immediate stress relief in the aftermath of a single workout. Much of the research on exercise and stress relates to that. Moderate exercise immediately improves a person's mental outlook, mood and 'PALMS score' -- an instrument that measures tense arousal, symptoms of depression and energy and vigor. That effect, Stults-Kolehmainen says, lasts for several hours.
But an overall workout program can also address stress by reversing some of the damage created by chronic stress. Exercise affects the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine and BDNF that are associated with mood, learning and memory. "Stress atrophies the brain -- especially the hippocampus, which is responsible for a lot, but memory in particular. When you’re stressed, you forget things," explains Stults-Kolehmainen. By promoting these important neurochemicals, exercise can help sharpen thinking, he adds.
Exercise Before A Stressor: Take advantage of worrisome waiting time by going for a run or a bike ride before a stressful event -- like an exam, important meeting or even a first date. Using a workout as a prophylactic at this time is possibly the best way to take advantage of exercise's stress-reducing effects.
Exercise Even When You Don't Feel Like It: "When you’re stressed, you tend to exercise less. So this is the big conundrum: It helps you feel better, but paradoxically, right when you need exercise the most, you do it the least," says Stults-Kolehmainen. His fix? Choose exercises that also include stress relievers like meditation and breath work (think: yoga or tai chi), which can help to jumpstart motivation that's lagging due to stress.
Grab A Workout Buddy: "Social support helps to buffer stress and when you are among people you like, it seems to get you out of isolation. Then you're getting all the positive effects of exercise and then all the friendship and support as well," Stults-Kolehmainen says, pointing to recent research that the gym environment -- trainers and classmates, for example, may improve stress outcomes. "Is it really exercise that makes you feel good? Or is it the change of environment and the social support? Social support releases oxytocin, neutralizes phsyical effects of stress and makes you feel good."
Go For A Balanced Fitness Plan: "You're out of whack if you're stressed, so restore some balance with a varied exercise program," says Stults-Kolehmainen. "The American College of Sports Medicine recommends resistance, aerobic and neuromotor training, which incorporates agility, balance and coordination."
Stress-Less Fact Of The Day:Few things are as immediate in their ability to reduce stress as exercise, so get moving -- even if you don't feel like it.