Monday, October 25, 2021

Release: Using Physical Activity to Manage Your Stress


My last four columns have been dedicated to describing Relax, the third line of defense against stress in my Five R’s of Coping Model. As I discussed in these articles, Relax as a line of defense against stress works by putting your body into a relaxed state that cancels out the stress response. You simply cannot be stressed and relaxed at the same time. The four classic relaxation strategies I discussed (diaphragmatic breathing, breath meditation, visualization, and autogenic training) lead with your mind to help you relax.

Let me explain…

Leading with your mind involves sitting or lying down for at least 20 minutes and focusing on slowing down your runaway mind to relax your body. I call these techniques passive relaxation strategies, because they don’t involve movement and physical activity other than breathing.

Sometimes these mind-based techniques work and you can shut down the fight-or-flight response by leading with your mind. Other times, they do not. If you are like me, sometimes when you are really stressed out and all wound up you find it hard to sit or lie still for 20 minutes. You need to move and use more physically active strategies to break your stress response.

This is where release techniques work. Release, as a line of defense against stress, leads with the body, not the mind.

Remember, when you are under stress and your body has mobilized the fight-or-flight response, you are prepared for action. You are in a state that calls for physical release. You have the energy, your muscles are tense and ready, and your mind is alert and willing. When you fight or flee you use up the by-products of your stress response (blood sugars, hormones, muscle tension, and high blood pressure) constructively.

While the bad news is you cannot always fight or flee, the good news is that physical activity works the same way in helping you get rid of stress related muscle tension and nervous energy. There a host of mild, moderate, vigorous, and cathartic types of physical activity and exercise that will release stress related muscle tension and use up the energy mobilized to fight or flee in healthy ways. These run the gamut from mild physical activities such as systematic muscle relaxation to cathartic forms of release such as dead lifting as much weight as you can for one repetition.

Let me explain what I mean by mild, moderate, vigorous, and cathartic types of physical activity and exercise.

There are several ways to characterize the intensity level of physical activity. For simplicity’s sake I use the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans put out by the US Department of Health and Human Services. The guidelines were developed for the average American adult and emphasize activities for developing cardiovascular (heart/lung) and muscular fitness. They use a measure of intensity called the rate of perceived exertion (RPE). This measures your perception of how hard you are working when performing various physical activities. It is the subjective interpretation of your intensity level and based on a scale of 1-10:

Level Feeling

1-2. Mild. Extremely easy. You can easily carry on a conversation

3. Very easy. You can converse with almost no effort.

4. Moderately easy. You can converse with a little bit of effort.

5. Starting to get challenging. Conversation requires more effort

6-7. Vigorous. Difficult. Conversation requires a lot of effort.

8. Very difficult. Conversation requires maximum effort

9-10. Cathartic. Full-out effort. No conversation is possible.

All physical activity intensity levels release the effects of stress in three ways. (1) They fully contract and relax your tense muscles, (2) they use the energy mobilized during the stress response in a productive way, and (3) they shift your attention away from your problems and onto something that you enjoy. You can use mild, moderate, vigorous, or cathartic levels of physical activity to release your stress.

The intensity of mild physical activity is not designed to raise your heart rate enough to produce a cardiovascular or muscular strength training effect. During level 1-3 activities, you can easily carry on a conversation with almost no effort. Activities such as systematic muscle relaxation, static stretching and gentle yoga postures are all forms of mild intensity activities that are effective in getting rid of the muscle tension associated with the stress response. If you choose to do yoga, start with basic postures that you can do by yourself. Many organized yoga classes go well beyond mild physical activity levels.

Let me use walking /running to illustrate moderate to vigorous activity levels. To increase the intensity of your activity to a moderate level you need to walk or run at an RPE of between 4-5. At this pace you would be able to converse, but it would take some effort to sustain your conversation depending upon the duration of your walk/run.

Moderate to vigorous physical activity is between 5-6 RPE. To walk or run at a moderate to vigorous activity level your RPE could not drop below a 5 for the duration of your activity. Walking or running at an RPE of between 5-6 would make it difficult to converse.

Vigorous physical activity is carried on at an RPE of 7-8. To walk or run at this intensity level requires a lot of effort and it would be very difficult to carry on a conversation. You would need to save your energy and oxygen for walking/running.

Lastly, cathartic physical activities are maximum-effort, explosive activities. They counter the effects of stress the same way vigorous activities do but are much more intense. Because of their higher intensity, cathartic activities provide a dramatic and immediate stress-releasing effect. They are short-term and maximum effort. Sometimes they are single repetition activities like lifting weights for one repetition using the heaviest weight you can handle. Other times they involve many repetitions such as sprints where you ran or swam as fast as you could for a short distance. During cathartic activities conversation is impossible.

Using physical activity for the purpose of releasing tension and managing stress is both similar and different from using it to improve your health. For example, you can go for a walk to get outside and clear your head but walk at a slow meandering pace, stopping to smell the roses and admire the clouds. This might help you forget your problems and manage your stress but it will not give you an aerobic workout.

You can also go for a walk for at least 20 continuous minutes at an intensity that puts your heart rate in a range that will provide an aerobic workout. This can also help you manage your stress because it will use up some of the energy mobilized during alarm and resistance and get rid of some of the muscle tension that accompanied it. Both walks could be used to manage stress. Only the latter will also give you an aerobic workout. The choice is up to you.

In the next few articles I’ll give you some mild-cathartic activities to play around with that will help you release your stress by leading with your body.

In the meantime, remember to stress less and live more.

Dr. Rich Blonna is an expert in understanding how the mind and body work together in creating and managing stress. He is the author of several stress self-help books and courses and the popular college textbook, Coping With Stress in a Changing World 5th Ed; McGraw-Hill Publishing. He is a retired Professor Emeritus from William Paterson University in New Jersey. For over 25 years he has devoted himself to helping people just like you stress less and live more.

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