April's Wellness Topic: Stress Management
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Dr. Kerry Stewart
Stress Management

When the Going Gets Tough, Keep Moving
by Kerry Stewart

Physical or emotional problems can affect any of us. A rough day at work, a job loss, a death in the family or a diagnosis of a serious health problem may lead us to give up our good eating habits or abandon a regular exercise routine. During such times, some of us might also resort to harmful habits like smoking, drinking too much alcohol or abusing drugs. And yet, times of distress are the very periods of our life when we need to stick with our healthy habits, because these behaviors — especially exercise — can help us cope with these challenges and maintain good health.

Know the benefits of exercise

There are many benefits of exercise, including reducing the risk for many diseases, and improving mood. Despite these benefits, many physicians still fail to mention exercise as a first-line treatment for managing stress or for restoring health and preventing disease. Medical training still focuses on prescribing medicines or performing surgery. Yet, in many cases, increasing one's activity can be a very effective treatment.

For example, for most healthy adults with mildly elevated blood pressure, the guidelines from the National Institutes of Health recommend a six-month trial of exercise and diet before starting a blood pressure medication. Similarly, a therapy for mild to moderate leg pain during walking is — somewhat counter-intuitively — to increase your walking, despite the pain. In many cases, this approach may be better than surgery.

Another common instance when health care providers seems to forget about the benefits of exercise: When a cancer patient has unusual fatigue while undergoing radiation or chemotherapy, many care providers recommend more rest — even though maintaining an active lifestyle has been shown to improve stamina and minimize fatigue.

Another benefit of exercise is that it can improve mild depression, anxiety and other mood disorders. Besides helping the body stay physically active, exercise relieves stress and helps you to feel better about yourself. This could be due to the ability of extra activity to increase endorphins in the bloodstream — that's the chemical produced in the brain that reduces pain and induces euphoria. Or it could be due to the ability of a good workout to take your mind off your worries.

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