Your environment in constantly stressing you.
During these moments of stress, your body releases certain hormones that kill your ambition and slow you down.
Consequently, to maintain your motivation and vitality you need an effective approach to dealing with these stress hormones. As it turns out, getting regular exercise is one of the best ways to accomplish this.
Exercise is your secret weapon for overcoming the negative effects of everyday stress.
This makes perfect sense if you examine what happens in your body when you encounter stress and how the biological processes activated by exercise can buffer this.
Understanding this, you can design your own simple exercise program that you actually enjoy doing — and that will help keep you motivated, positive and energetic in your everyday life.
Our bodies evolved to be stressed
In the wild, stress of all kinds is taken in stride because we have evolved to handle it.
This point is made by Robert Sapolsky in his book, Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers. Take a grazing zebra, for example. It gets attacked by a lion and luckily escapes with only a few wounds. What does it do next? It immediately goes back to grazing.
During the attack the zebra’s body was flooded with powerful stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Its biochemistry quickly changed on a massive scale. Then a short time after the attack, it switched right back to normal.
We humans used to act the same in the wild. But in our modern society, we routinely have stress responses way out of proportion to what is needed. And, unfortunately, we do not return back to normal quickly.
Your mind predicts problems
The mind, whether in a zebra or a human, is designed to solve problems related to survival.
It can’t help itself; that’s its job.
As a result, the mind is continuously looking out for trouble in the present and predicting it in the future. It’s keeping an eye out for things like lions popping up or cars stopping suddenly in front of you.
Minds operate by comparing and associating things in the present environment with memories of the past. These memories come complete with emotional responses, which also end up getting associated.
In other words, minds link things together. The smell of a lion gets associated with an attack. So, when a zebra smells a lion, its heart starts pumping faster. It is predicting an attack will occur and its body reacts accordingly. The same happens in humans.
Your body reacts to your mind’s predictions
The mind records perceptions from stressful situations. During an attack, the zebra’s mind records the smell of the lion, the feel of its teeth, the humidity in the air, the heat of the sun, and all other perceptions that are present.
These recorded perceptions stimulate the organism into action when a similar stressful situation in encountered in the future. When sensing similar perceptions, the mind predicts that a stressful situation resembling the original is approaching.
The mind, predicting a dangerous situation is about to happen, triggers the release of hormones to help the organism deal with the danger. These hormones get the body ready to fight or flee.
This was a great survival mechanism in the wild, but it isn’t as useful to us now.
Let’s look at how this works in the modern world. Say you are in a car crash. At the time of the crash, you’re driving a red Chevy Impala, listening to Willie Nelson, and navigating through a rainstorm.
Your mind has recorded each of your perceptions during the crash – the red car, Willie’s singing, the rain coming down, and dozens of other perceptions. Any of these perceptions, when experienced again in the future, can trigger a stress response.
Your mind gets your body prepared. It predicts trouble on a subconscious level. For example, when it sees you’re driving a red car on a rainy day and it becomes a little nervous. Then a Willie Nelson song starts playing on the radio. Now the mind becomes even more convinced a crash is about to occur. So, it starts triggering a stress response in your body to deal with it.
Mother Nature has made us jumpy with minds that trigger stress responses to things that are not necessarily dangerous to us.
Modern society triggers the stress response
Many of us are being emotionally triggered, i.e. stressed, on a regular basis by our work environment and by being surrounded with electronics (phones, TVs, etc.).
We do it to ourselves, because we’re curious animals — we can’t help ourselves. We seek sensation.
There is an immense amount of information and emotion recorded in a modern human’s mind. Being exposed to enough environmental stimuli will sooner or later cause mental distress. That’s why many people are “unplugging,” limiting screen time and meditating. It’s an attempt to reduce overexposure to stimuli that trigger stress.
However, we also tend to use electronic devices to distract ourselves from our mental distress. We “amuse ourselves” to alter our mood, which biologically translates to altering our hormones. We get off on music, news, sports, gossip, etc. But the kicker is that these things may actually distress us more.
In the wild, our bodies continuously release hormones as we walk through and interact with the environment. The pace there is nothing like that which modern society sets. The fast pace of modern society is contributing to the constant release of cortisol, the stress hormone. After a while, chronic stress dims us down mentally and our energy level drops, as does our immune system’s readiness.
Healthy habits help you avoid stress
We can’t expect a hormonal system that evolved over millions of years to adapt in just few hundred years to a radically different environment. So instead, it’s important to establish healthy habits to help our minds and bodies better handle the environment we find ourselves in. This gives them a chance to perform their job of survival more optimally and avoid stress.
Without establishing healthy habits, your mind and body will follow ancient instincts. These include to be lazy and fat – which, above all, gave organisms a survival advantage by conserving and storing energy. Worse, we have instincts and mechanisms to seek pleasure. These may help relieve stress, but they also cause addiction.
Modern society puts once-rare molecules like sugars, starches, alcohol, opioids, and nicotine within easy reach. Modern society also provides for addictive behaviors such as gambling and sex. We have plenty of rope to hang ourselves with.
Exercise counters the stress response
The secret to improving your ability to handle stress is to exercise regularly and be physically active.
Specifically, work your body’s muscles vigorously, like they were made to do in dangerous situations, to exert physical stress on your body. This triggers a stress response – including the release of hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline into your system.
Research (such as this and this) has shown that repeated, intermittent exposure to physical stress such as exercise, with enough time to recover in between, can lead to your body blunting and optimizing its hormonal stress response. In other words, you condition your body to be less reactive to stress and to handle it better.
How much exercise is enough?
While researchers have not yet come to a consensus about what is the exact ideal amount of daily exercise, one thing is clear: any exercise is better than no exercise.
Twenty minutes of exercise early in the day sets the tone for the day. For example, go for a morning bike ride, do some calisthenics, or dance to your favorite music — anything to get your body moving and your day off to a good start.
When you do this regularly, your blood biochemistry will start to get buffered. That is to say, it will take more stress hormones to bring you down to the point where the programed mechanisms of your mind and body kick in. When these mechanisms kick in, your mind and body know what to do: you’ll smoke a cigarette, have a drink, or eat chocolate, sugar, starch, fat, salt, etc. Additionally, you may cry, bitch, be sedentary, watch a movie, listen to music, read, run, etc. Depending on your past, one or more of these actions will automatically kick in.
By proactively getting your exercise in every morning, you can increase your ability to deal with stress throughout the day. Consequently, this helps you remain in better control of your mood and actions.
Moreover, evening exercise can discharge stress that has built up throughout the day. This will allow for better sleep. Just don’t do it too close to bedtime, as it may energize you too much and take a while to wind down enough to be able to fall asleep.
Sleeping well will help you feel like exercising in the morning. In other words, it creates a positive feedback loop – the more exercise you get, the more good sleep you’ll get. Likewise, the more sleep you get, the more you’ll feel like exercising.