August 06, 2009

When Exercise Might Not Be the Right Answer

Note: I'm on the road today. Typing on a keyboard while driving is probably still legal -- I mean, you can text while you drive -- but I thought it better not to risk it. So this is a vintage post that I've unpacked and brought down from the archives. Crabby will be back tomorrow with more fresh Cranky Fitness! -Merry

Sometimes exercise might not be the right answer.

I'm not talking about the retired professor who wrote "The Joy of Laziness," advocating that people exercise less and sleep in more. He felt that exercise made people more stressed, while laziness (such as hanging out in a hammock) made them more relaxed. I'd like to put that theory to further non-rigorous testing before offering an opinion one way or another.

I'm talking about an article in Psychology Today about how exercise might not be the best way to respond to stress. This is totally contrary to my oft-repeated mantra of exercise or else, but this article made me think. (In itself a good thing.)

Basically the author suggests that exercise might not be the best response to stress. Or at least, not all the time. She advocates positive social contact instead. (I'm grossly oversimplifying what the author wrote, but that's a side effect of my laziness testing.) She quotes a neuroscientist, "You may think exercise is curative... but the calm you get from jogging 10 miles is more analgesic than therapeutic."

This runs counter to everything else I've read on the subject. Everywhere you look experts are recommending exercise as a form of stress management. Exercise helps the body relax. It doesn't make my problems go away, but if I'm relaxed I'm better prepared to face them.

The idea of deliberately not exercising worries me a bit. It would be so easy to slide into the habit of using stress as an excuse not to exercise. Working out is the best way to blow off steam that I know of. Perhaps the solution would be for people in high-stress situations to exercise in a social setting: go to a gym, join a cycling group, something like that. I've always been a loner when it comes to exercise, but maybe I could persuade the dog to come along on a run.

I don't think there's anything wrong with positive social contact when you're having a stressed-out day; I just don't think it should take the place of exercise.

I remember reading of one woman who used to stuff herself whenever she was upset, taking the concept of comfort food to an extreme. Then she switched to exercising when she was upset, which at first was great. She lost a lot of weight, toned her body, and felt good about herself. But she felt good about herself only when she was exercising. So she ended up exercising for hours at a time (I believe her exercise drug of choice was dancing), to the point where she seriously injured the tendons in her legs but wanted to continue dancing anyway. Someone in that situation should probably try hammock testing for a change. Or social contact. (Or social contact in a hammock.)

Seems to me that if you have a tendency to take things to this extreme, then exercise might not be the right answer for you. I suspect this woman is the exception rather than the rule. But that's just my opinion. What do you think?

Note: the hammock up above is available for a mere $19,500. (Background setting not included.) I don't know how you're supposed to relax in something that expensive, but it does look nice.


  1. Thanks for that Merry. I think this topic is a good case for balance and all in moderation folks! Under stress sometimes I want to chat about it, other times I feel like swimming an kilometre and grunt at any attempt at human contact. :)

    Sometime excerise is the answer for my stress and other times it wears me out more.

  2. So this person is saying that while the run would be good for your body, it has no effect on the mind?

    I'm with you on this one, Merry. That makes no sense at all. The body-mind connection has been proven to exist beyond a shadow of a doubt, so the "analgesic" effect should definitely produce mental and emotional benefits too.

    Provided of course that you don't use exercise as a tool for punishing yourself. Or that you are so competitive that you ADD stress instead of eliminating it.

    That is a nice hammock... But I can buy a nice car for that price!

  3. Interesting discussion, I think a good walk with a friend or a favourite class would alleviate stress very well indeed. An isolated run may help clear your head to deal with a problem too. I agree, getting into a mindset where one thinks one should't exercise if stressed could lead to very little exercise in these modern times, lol!

    If I had $20,000 to spend on a hammock, I think I would be one very unstressed person indeed.

  4. Pft.. I think the professor wrote that to justify HIS laziness. Guaranteed.

    How can workouts NOT relieve stress? You're thinking about nothing else, you have music playing, you feel good, you feel alive and when you get through an awesome workout... it will put you out like a baby.

  5. Im with kellie in that it all depends.

    For me exercise is NOT what I always turn to in times of stress (friends, family, real housewives on bravo) but is 100% is what I use as a stress PREVENTATIVE.

    I know if I do a little cardio in the morning my breaking point with the preschooler is far less easily found.

    that sort of thing.

  6. dragonmamma/naomiAugust 6, 2009 at 7:34 AM

    But I get my positive social contact WHILE I exercise. The Y is my little mini-community where everyone I run into has a smile and a story while resting up between various physical pursuits.

    I've got bootcamp this morning, and I'm looking forward to the good-spirited competition with my fellow gym rats.

  7. I think a good walk with a friend or a favorite class would alleviate stress very well indeed. An isolated run may help clear your head to deal with a problem too.

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  8. I ditto Hanlie's comment.

    Movement seems like it would be a good thing for all parts of a human. Unless you aren't human.
    I used to stuff and stress. or vice versa. Not a pretty pic and really unhealthy. Not the *right* kind of movement.

  9. Love that pic! I want to be in Hawaii on a hammock... not thinking about anything! :-)

    I agree with others.. it DEPENDS! Some is my stress definitely needs to be worked out or I am gonna explode & often it is not what I want to bring on others. In other cases, it is a type that I need to talk to somebody.

    I say, like your food & exercise program, do what feels right for you!!!

    PS: Texting while driving along with talking on the cell phone is illegal in CA! YAHOO! Although I still see people doing both all the time. They are the ones go 20 miles per hour in the fast lane when the speed limit is 50! AND, they can't seem to find the lane they should be driving in!

  10. I am a pretty active runner and have used it as a source of stress relief more times that I can count. Not only has it helped me be a more calm, level headed woman, but it has helped improve my running since anger, confusion, etc. has MOTIVATED many runs!

    What I think DOES have some the notion that we shouldn't rely solely on exercise for stress relief. When I was injured once I was a beast to be around because I didn't know how to handle my emotions without being able to run. I had forgotten my other "coping mechanisms".

    All in all, I think exercise is an AWESOME method to use, but it should not be our only one.

    Thanks for this thought provoking post :)

    -Kerri from Enzymatic Therapy

  11. Sometimes I need a break from the gym just to regroup. It does work wonders for me.

  12. That's interesting...
    I don't think the answer is to replace exercise with social contact, though. Maybe just add some social contact to your life. I know many people who would be MORE stressed if they cut back on their exercise!

  13. Well, there's exercise and there's EXERCISE. I see people sometimes who are frantically striving to burn as many calories as possible. They're stressed out. They're not enjoying it. They're PUNISHING themselves for eating whatever. That is NOT good exercise.

    I do agree that positive social interaction is the best. The other day I took a hike with a friend instead of running, and it made me feel great all the way around.

    Balance, balance, balance, and knowing what you need in the moment is key.

  14. It would be SO easy to use that as an excuse for not exercising! Whatever. I'm gonna be a rebel and exercise anyway.

  15. Bah! You're all wrong.

    It's wine.

  16. Nothing clears my mind better than going out for my lunch-time run at work. No matter how stressed I am before that (and that is often as I am a pretty intense guy) I always come back more refreshed. Also, I cannot count how many issues and challenges I have actually solved while out on that run thinking things through!

  17. Mary - This is a really good topic. For me, exercise really was the magic bullet. Without it I'm not sure I would have been successful.

    It not only improved my physical body, but also my emotional health. It was a mind-body connection for me.

  18. "Positive Social Contact" can be many things in the eyes and minds of the beholders, but I don't think it's been disputed anywhere that exercise can atleast cure some of the daily pinned up frustration we have. A happy medium is the best remedy if you ask me.

  19. Run with a supportive group of people and get the best of both worlds :-)

  20. Great post! I think exercising to reduce stress is a fine line. I think daily stress of life can be used with exercise but extreme stress should be balanced with exercise and also digging through the roots of this stress through communication with others and simply relaxing

  21. I figure the best way is to do both: exercise for all I'm worth, and then do some rigorous hammock testing :)

  22. The Article is very interesting. Whatever a person does, hanging out or doing exercise he / she must be in a relaxed mood mentally.

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  27. Whenever I'm stressed or frustrated, I go for a run or swim. It really relaxed my mind and improve my mood aside from keeping me healthy and fit. Really awesome.

    By the way, I'm under a diet plan and I'm using a supplement I found in lipo 6 hers reviews.


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