Walking and Stress

Is there a connection between walking and stress reduction? Consider this scenario: You're at work. Your boss calls. You have to hand in that big report two weeks early. Your blood pressure surges. Your pulse races. You start seeing red. What are you going to do?

Before you blow up and give the boss a piece of your mind, try going for a stress-busting, lunch-hour walk. Taking time out to pursue an activity like walking can get your mind off distressing concerns and give you a feeling of detachment from daily pressures. By relaxing and giving your mind the room to wander, you may be able to see the situation in a new light. You may even come up with a solution to your dilemma.

Stress can be thought of as the need to adapt to a change. But stress is not always negative. With strong coping strategies, you can handle stress and use it creatively as a call to positive action. Stress-related problems arise when you cannot figure out how to adapt to a stressful situation.

When you feel threatened by a stressful situation, your body automatically prepares you for action. It produces hormones that quicken your pulse, tense your muscles, raise your blood pressure, and sharpen your senses. This "fight or flight" mechanism was a lifesaver in earlier times when humans had to cope with physical danger every day.

Even today it comes in handy when you're forced into a situation that requires quick action. Unfortunately, most of the stressful situations you're faced with in modern life probably don't require a physical fight or flight. Instead, all this physiological commotion builds up -- putting you on edge and keeping you there.

Unless you find a way of coping with the situation and relieving the pent-up energy, you leave yourself open to a variety of stress-related psychiatric symptoms, like anxiety, aggression, and depression, not to mention physical ailments such as high blood pressure, tension headaches, and digestive disorders.

At some time, we all need a constructive method of releasing physical energy and emotional stress. Exercise can provide that safety valve. In particular, walking can help relieve stress, thus improving your mood and mental outlook. The NIMH panel on exercise and mental health concluded that exercise can help relieve muscle tension and reduce hormones that serve as messengers of stress. Exercise may also reduce stress-related emotions, including anxiety, anger, aggression, depression, and tension.

A study conducted at the University of Kansas found that people who were physically fit were better able to cope with stressful life changes that had occurred during the previous year. Despite such stressful situations as divorce, death of a loved one, or starting a new job, the study participants who were physically fit complained of fewer health problems and symptoms of depression than did the participants who engaged in little or no exercise.

There are several stress-busting approaches to walking. It can be regarded as a social activity, offering an opportunity to enjoy the company of friends or family. Conversely, it can also be done alone, allowing you the freedom to sort through your thoughts.

Another approach: If you're stressed-out and plagued by nega­tive, unproductive thoughts, try concentrating on your walking technique and breathing. When you combine walking with taking long, deep breaths, your mind tends to become more aware and alert. You can then choose to invite into your conscious mind only those thoughts that are positive and uplifting. In this way, you can change your whole outlook -- easing the way for confidence and peace of mind to replace stress, fear, depression, and anxiety.

To help relieve the myriad aches and pains associated with stress, such as stiff shoulders and cricks in the neck, special massages and exercises are useful additions to a walking program. Tension-relaxing massage should in­volve firm but gentle circular strokes, with extra attention to knots and tender spots, especially in the stress-storing shoulders and neck. Stretching exercises such as neck rolls and shoulder shrugs can also help loosen tight muscles.

Walkers can even concentrate on relaxing their muscles as they walk. To do this, simply focus on a particular muscle or muscle group -- such as in your shoulders, neck, or jaw. Tense the muscles for a few steps as you walk, then slowly release the tension. As you do this, you'll feel the tightness slipping away.

Depression is another disease whose symptoms can be alleviated by walking. Learn more about depression and its link to exercise in the next section.

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