The very joys of Thanksgiving and the coming holidays, family feasts, gathering gifts for loved ones, the hustle and bustle, can also be a source of tension and even dread. By the time we’re toasting in the New Year, we’ve not only gained weight, but also are exhausted and stressed out from party planning, sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, shopping on a tight budget, squeezing into tight clothes, fighting crowds at the mall, and deflecting family dynamics. Exercise can be a way to combat not only those additional pounds we often put on over the holidays, but also the accompanying stress so prevalent this time of year, which itself can lead to more overeating. Making time in your schedule for exercise can break the cycle of stress and stress eating. Plus, many scientists, such as those at The Mayo Clinic, point to the mood elevating and stress reducing benefits of many types of physical exercise due to the release of endorphins, or “feel good neurotransmitters” in the brain.
Some Newburyporters have intuited what scientists prescribe, making exercise part of their weekly routine as a way of reducing and preventing stress. Michelle Gabaree, President of Gabaree Lampshades and long time student of mine, finds that having her Pilates instructor come to her home helps keep her accountable and serves as a respite from a hectic week, while bolstering her physical and emotional strength:
Twice a week for the past 5 years, I have been working with Adrienne in a semi-private home environment, where I start my day with Pilates. During the busy [holiday] season, it would be easy to just say, “not today, I have too much to do,” however, taking an hour of my day and concentrating on my core and my inner strength gives me strength for the rest of the day.”
I teach my students to go at their own pace and not to push themselves past their physical limits. There’s a difference between challenging yourself and overdoing it. Beginning with a warm up and gradually easing into your routine, whatever it is, will help keep you on track and prevent injury. In Pilates, the breathing helps focus our attention inward, encourages abdominal contraction, and brings a sense of peacefulness and deep relaxation to the whole workout. The principles we practice, such as lengthening the spine, proper alignment, core strength, graceful movement, and a feeling of being centered carries over to all your daily activities, whether it’s running or standing in the kitchen stirring gravy.
Yoga can also help reduce stress while building strength. I asked Jennie Lee, Transfomative Yoga Therapist and owner of Stillness in Motion Studio for Yoga and Wellness in Newburyport how she would describe the Zen-like state that many yoga enthusiasts aspire to. Students, she said, who dedicate themselves to the practice of yoga find that the movement blended with the meditational focus on breath, called pranayamabrings an “inner-calm.” Yoga provides a break from daily life and the minds’ “incessant thinking,” guides us inward towards the “still point that we all have within us, but don’t know how to access.” Lee points out that Yoga, the original mind/body exercise, helps us turn off the mind and “listen to the body’s wisdom.” Especially during this time of year, we need to give ourselves a break and simplify in order to reduce stress, which may mean not saying yes to everyone and not pressuring ourselves to exercise more than usual.
Local entrepreneur Tom Tolley, owner of New World Educationseems to have mastered the simplicity of having fun while being active, by mixing it up and integrating exercise with family traditions. His combination of weight lifting, biking, indoor rock climbing, and the traditional Christmas family football game encompass both solo and social, indoors and outside workouts. For him, some of the stress of the season comes from not only traveling far to be with family, but also “falling into patterns that we had when we were young,” a scenario familiar to many of us when we spend time with our parents and siblings. Tolley also walks almost every day, which not only gets the blood flowing, but also “burns off the day’s anxieties.” A late afternoon trek can be the perfect antidote to an end of the day slump and revs him up to go back to work and tackle challenges with renewed vigor. Simply put, exercise, he says “puts you in a better frame of mind.”
It turns out that the mind body connection benefits of exercise we often associate with Yoga and Pilates can be found in many other types of workouts, but how does it work? In an article entitled Embodied Exercise Alan Fogel describes a heightened awareness of the breath, heartbeat, movement of the body in space, and the focus on how we feel during exercise, which he calls “body sense.” Not only does exercise have a positive effect on the brain, but also, Fogel notes, the act of perspiring rids the body of stress hormones like cortisol, which if left in the body can inhibit the brain’s ability to effectively manage stress. “”Body sense” enables your body to function more efficiently, increases the good feeling caused by the release of relaxation hormones, and helps you reap greater health benefits.
Although beginning a new exercise regimen may seem daunting at first, making time to exercise regularly becomes a joyful habit. Choose something you love to do and if possible, vary your workout to keep it interesting. Take a break from shopping and cooking and go for a brisk walk to burn calories and clear your head.
Newburyport offers so many fun fitness choices. Whether you relish the isolation and quiet of a run in Maudslay State Park or hanker for a more social workout like ice-skating with the kids at The Graff Rink, the important thing is to do some kind of movement on a regular basis that takes you away from daily pressures. And by focusing inward, you’ll be better equipped to face the holiday season with less tension and a more positive outlook.
We welcome Andrienne Motezinos to our family of Newburyport Today contributors. Andrienne is the owner of Newburyport Pilates and will be posting articles on health and fitness in the Newburyport area.