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The fitness industry loves to tout the ancillary benefits of exercise. We know not everyone wants to pump themselves up to gargantuan proportions or devote their every waking moment toward achieving a single-digit body-fat percentage. But everyone wants to feel good, and there are plenty of studies showing that exercise is a valuable tool in managing depression, anxiety and, in particular, stress.

Understanding stress

There’s an almond-shaped cluster of neurons deep inside our brain that regulates how our body responds to stress. The things we see, hear and experience filter through this area; if danger is detected, hormones are released to help you survive this perceived threat. This is often called the “fight or flight” response, as in you have two options: Face this threat head-on or hightail it in the other direction.

What happens, though, when this internal threat detector never shuts off? As brilliant as our brain can be, it has a hard time distinguishing between minor nuisances and major threats. To the brain, there’s no difference between running 5K for fun and running 5K because a grizzly bear is chasing you. It’s up to you to make this distinction, to control the stress response so your body doesn’t shift into “fight or flight” mode.

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It’s all about the hormones

Too much of anything can have negative consequences. When the body is in a state of stress – as it is when you’re pushing through a tough workout – it releases the hormones adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol. These hormones are meant to help you survive that theoretical grizzly-bear encounter: Adrenaline and norepinephrine raise your heart rate and blood pressure, enhancing your reaction time and focus; cortisol increases the amount of glucose in the bloodstream so you have instant energy to fuel your fight or flight.

Cortisol also shuts down less essential bodily functions such as the immune response and digestion. If you’re in a constant state of stress – including the stress caused by exercise – your body recognizes this as the new normal. Stomach issues, constant flu-like symptoms and hypertension are just a few of the nasty stress-related side effects. For anyone trying to change their physique or become more healthy, it’s imperative to control this stress response, otherwise that time in the gym is all for naught. These tips will help.

Learn how to breathe

You might think you know how to breathe just fine, thank you very much. I’m here to tell you you’re wrong. Don’t take it personally. I had to learn how to breathe properly myself and it’s been a huge game-changer.

Most of us are shallow breathers – we take quick, tiny breaths that barely fill our lungs at all. When we practise diaphragmatic breathing, we increase the depth of our inhalations and tap into the part of our nervous system that counters the fight-or-flight stress response. Our heart rate begins to slow, the body relaxes, and functions such as digestion are improved.

Another thing happens once we learn to breathe – like magic, our posture and mobility improve. This is because stress often manifests physically as tension in our muscles. Deep breathing helps to relax this tension, opening up a whole new range of motion.

Keep your workouts short … but intense

There are two types of stress: eustress and distress. Eustress is the good kind of stress, the mental stress that pushes us to meet a work deadline or the physical stress that forces our bodies to adapt and build muscle. Distress, on the other hand, is exactly what you think it is. It’s the negative stress, the stress that kills.

Good stress can become bad stress if you’re not mindful and aware. Those gruelling, 90-minute workouts that look so cool when presented in abbreviated form during movie montages can do more harm than good. Remember, stress sends cortisol levels into the stratosphere. When cortisol levels are too high for too long, muscle is broken down and digestion slows, making it just about impossible to get strong and healthy.

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A well-planned and efficient workout should last no more than an hour, and even that can be excessive. It’s all about the minimally effective dose. If you use your time wisely and focus your intensity on the task at hand, 45 minutes is plenty of time to warm up, work out and hit the shower.

Prioritize recovery

Experts with more brains and experience than myself say there’s no such thing as overtraining, just under-recovery. I don’t fully agree, but I get where they’re coming from – what we do outside the gym matters just as much (if not more) than what we do in it.

If you’re sleeping eight hours a night, eating a well-balanced diet that’s heavy on plants and healthy protein, and making time for mindful solitude (i.e., meditation, walking in nature without earbuds blasting music, journalling), there’s a very good chance you can handle all the stressors life throws your way.

Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator at the Toronto West End College Street YMCA.

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