When stress is an all-the-time thing, exercise may seem like the last thing you want to think about. But adopting a sedentary lifestyle is not the solution you’re looking for. In fact, being completely sedentary is well known to exacerbate stress-related problems.
Mind-body activities such as yoga, martial arts, and qi gong have been shown to have a number of stress-lowering effects on the body.
For example, a study of people who practice judo found that they had a much lower inflammatory stress response to an intense exercise trial compared to sedentary subjects. fight stress and improve balance of stress-related hormones such as cortisol. All of the participants tested produced free radicals that cause inflammation in response to the exercise, but the judo practitioners had much higher internal antioxidant levels that helped eliminate the free radicals than the sedentary group.
Researchers note that endurance athletes in strenuous sports such as kayaking, running, and cycling experience high levels of inflammatory stress from training, but they don’t have the superior protective antioxidant levels seen in the judokas. There’s something about the mind-body aspect of judo training that uniquely separate it from high-intensity sports for offsetting chronic mental and physical stress.
Similar stress reduction benefits have been observed in response to the regular practice of yoga, tai chi, and aikido. In fact, when women with a high degree of stress engaged in an iyengar yoga practice, they had lower levels of cortisol and a more balanced response to life-challenging stressors.
Researchers think that mind-body exercise can reset the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis that governs the body’s stress response.
For best results from a mind-body practice, try the following suggestions:
Bring a sense of purpose to your practice. Take it seriously and do it regularly—at least three days a week.
Pay special attention to breathing and the connection between the mind and body when you practice.
Consider incorporating strength training into your exercise routine. Lifting moderately heavy loads provides overwhelming strength and tissue building benefits. It also has been shown to have beneficial effects on stress hormones and can lower chronic inflammation.
Abed, K., et al. Antioxidant Status and Oxidative Stress at Rest and in Response to Acute Exercise in Judokas and Sedentary Men. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. August 2011. 25(9), 2400-2409.
Banasik, J., et al. Effect of Iyengar yoga practice on fatigue and diurnal salivary cortisol concentration in breast cancer survivors. Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. 2011. 23(3):135-42.
Larkey, L., et al. Qigong/Tai Chi Easy for fatigue in breast cancer survivors: Rationale and design of a randomized clinical trial. Contemporary Clinical Trials. 2016. 50:222-8.