As I write this, I am feeling the after-effects of an early morning run with my friends Karrie and Susan…I feel calm, sharp, and ready for the day. Most of us know that exercise can help to calm us down, and during the Christmas holidays, calmness is a rare emotion for many of us. Certain forms of exercise (jogging, cross country skiing, swimming, hiking, bicycling) require a fairly consistent repetitive motion that can alter one’s state of consciousness. Described by some as “moving meditation”, the physiological effects of regular participation in these activities is very similar to what happens when one practices meditation. Breathing and movement act as a mantra and may in part be responsible for the feelings of calmness and tranquility claimed by some in response to exercise. Physical activity also revs up our endorphins, our brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters. Although this function is often referred to as a runner’s high, any workout that raises our heart rate and is over 30 minutes can boost the endorphins. These endorphins go a long way to bring us a little peace of mind, to calm us, and to improve our mood. They have even been known to lower symptoms associated with mild depression.
Mentally, exercise provides an outlet for negative emotions such as frustration, worry and irritability, which are sometimes higher during the holidays. Michael Hopkins, a graduate student affiliated with the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory Laboratory at Dartmouth, has been studying how exercise affects thinking and emotion and confirms the correlation between exercise and a lowering of stress. “It looks more and more like the positive stress of exercise prepares cells and structures and pathways within the brain so that they’re more equipped to handle stress in other forms,” he says “It’s pretty amazing, really, that you can get this translation from the realm of purely physical stresses to the realm of psychological stressors.”
Regular exercise reduces the amount of adrenal hormones your body releases in response to stress, and can also aid in sleep, which can be disrupted by stress and anxiety. While most of us believe that Christmas should be a time of happiness and joy, it can actually be full of stress and tension. The reasons for this vary. It could be missing a loved one, economic difficulties, family misunderstandings, loneliness, and even feeling overwhelmed by the heavy commercialism at this time of year. Exercise is one way to combat this…it always makes me feel better, and the time leading up to Christmas is no different. Even with a lot to do, if I fit in a workout (usually that means getting up early), I find that I am more in control of the rest of my day. Getting out for a walk or a run, even when we are very busy and have every excuse in the world, is one way to calm ourselves down and to find time to reflect on things.
Beyond minimizing stress, exercise can help us to focus on the more important things. I find that during this busy time of year I often miss the point of preparing for Christmas, and when I am alone on a run (or even with a friend), I have the chance to think about the true meaning. When our first children were very young, I began to discover the richness of the Advent season, and we started to really celebrate Christmas only after the Advent season (we even put the tree up later – usually the 23rd of December). Not only have we been enriched as a family by these Advent activities and preparations, I believe that we are not as stressed trying to get it all done (shopping still stresses me out, however). Squeezing in a workout is important for me, and I know it helps me in my attempts at finding peace this time of year. As I get older, some of my favorite memories are of running very early, in the dark, in the snow, and in the quiet on the mornings leading up to Christmas. I am still holding out hope that the 65 degree weather we have had the last few days in the Carolinas might quickly change to a forecast of the wintery white stuff…but not before my son drives home from college tonight! There is nothing like a cold, winter-weather run at Christmas time!!!
Do you try to fit in exercise during this busy time of year?