By Michele Borboa, MS
With the current unemployment rate reaching its highest since the 1980s, the job market has become far more competitive and demanding. Americans are spending longer hours in the office, working harder than ever to keep their jobs, and, as a result, experiencing extreme stress and neglecting their health and fitness. If you’re locked into long-hour employment, all that work and no play means impaired health and a poor quality of life for you. You may not be able to quit your job, but you can break the stress cycle and even stay in shape with the following workplace fitness tips.
WORKPLACE STRESS TAKES ITS TOLL
A recent report from the American Psychological Association indicates that as stress levels continue to rise, Americans are suffering from increased health problems and using detrimental ways of coping like drinking, smoking, eating, gambling or shopping. The human body is equipped to handle acute bouts of stress — known as the fight or flight response — but chronic levels start to deteriorate a person’s mental health, immune system, and bodily tissues.
ALL WORK AND NO PLAY BREAKS DOWN THE SYSTEM
According to stress and exercise physiologist Jenny Evans, founder of PowerHouse Performance Coaching, the human body is a beautifully designed system that is being disrupted by high stress that is not properly addressed.
“Our bodies were designed to successfully adapt to short periods of intense physical stress, like hunting, gathering, fighting, or fleeing…short-term stresses [that did not last] days, weeks or years,” the fitness expert explains. “The intense physical activity our ancestors got burned off the stress hormones, and then released ‘bliss molecules,’ like endorphins and endocannabinoids, which restored balance.” Americans today suffer from nonstop stress and forgo exercise instead of using it to manage stress. “Our system actually works better if we get short bouts of intense physical activity!” Evans adds.
THE TYPICAL AMERICAN WORK DAY
Our ancestors got physical activity throughout the day as part of their survival. The American survival mode includes long days at work living a mostly sedentary lifestyle.
Evans, who specializes in teaching “long hour office dwellers” to incorporate stress-busting fat-burning exercises throughout their workday, describes the typical American day at work:
- You wake up only to realize the alarm clock didn’t go off: stress hormones are released, but there’s no intense physical activity to burn them off.
- You’re late, trying to get the kids ready for school, but they are not cooperating: stress hormones are released, but there’s no intense physical activity to burn them off.
- You finally get in the car and get on the freeway only to realize it’s bumper-to-bumper traffic: stress hormones are released, but there’s no intense physical activity to burn them off.
- You try and sneak into work late without your boss seeing you, but happen to bump right into her the minute you step foot in the office: stress hormones are released, but there’s no intense physical activity to burn them off.
“What we have is frequent bouts of stress all day long, with no physical activity to burn them off,” Evans says. “The stress hormones continue to circulate throughout the body and result in harmful effects both physically as well as mentally, resulting in what I’ve termed the ‘Cortisol Crisis.’”
THE CORTISOL CRISIS CAN LEAD TO A HEALTH CRISIS
How do you feel when you show up the office every day faced with the same annoying coworker who is gunning for your job and making sure you know it? Chances are you get tense and agitated and, though you’d love to punch her out or run off your frustration, you’re trapped, ramping up your stress levels even more. Instead of using your body’s stress response to your advantage, you force your body into a chronic state of stress that damages your mind and body.
According to Evans, the stress-induced release of cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline is a good thing that provides energy to fight or flee, but that Americans have short-circuited the benefits of the stress response because they simply aren’t moving. She explains, “You’re exposed to lots of stress. Can you fight? Can you flee? No. So what happens to the stress hormones in the body? They’re not burned off and continue to circulate throughout the system. Elevated levels of cortisol are scientifically shown to increase body fat around the midsection (which raises our risk of cardiovascular disease), interfere with sleep and can lead to insomnia, decrease immunity, and increase hunger as well as cravings for high sugar, high fat foods.”
HOW TO “DEAL” WITH WORKPLACE STRESS
When you are working 40-plus hours a week, managing your stress or fitting in a workout on top of taking care of your family can seem impossible. To help busy women efficiently keep stress at bay and stay fit, Evans, who coaches organizations on how to increase employee capacity for stress and effectively increase overall job performance and productivity, has created PowerHouse Hit the Deck, a deck of fitness cards, each displaying a stress-busting fat-burning move that can be done in the office, outside, or at home.
PLAYING A WINNING HAND
The PowerHouse Hit the Deck provides short bursts of intense physical activity that burnoff the stress hormones and release the bliss molecules that help alleviate the stress response, no matter which cards you choose.
Evans explains, “It also raises the threshold for what the body perceives to be a stressful event. Think about this: you’re exposed to stress and the heart rate increases dramatically. When the stress is over your heart rate drops. The sooner your heart rate drops, the sooner you have recovered from the stress. When you do a card from Hit the Deck, your heart rate increases. When you finish the card and are drawing the next one, your heart rate drops.”
EXERCISE HELPS THE BODY COPE WITH STRESS
Cardiovascular fitness is measured by how quickly the heart rate drops from the physical stress of exercise. Dealing yourself a few Hit the Deck cards will train your heart rate to recover more quickly in between each card as well as training it to comfortably go higher. “The end result is that you’re training your body to recover from stress more quickly and you’re raising the threshold for what your body perceives to be a stressful event, all while getting a killer cardiovascular and resistance training workout with no fitness equipment!” says Evans.
BUST STRESS AND BURN FAT WITH SHORT WORKOUTS
Evans recommends incorporating short bouts of exercise throughout your day to help you manage time and allay the angst that comes with unsuccessfully trying to fit in a long workout. “Research shows you get as much benefit from breaking your workouts up as someone who does [longer workouts],” she adds. For example, do four to five Hit the Deck cards or 10 minutes of physical activity in the morning, again at midday and then in the early evening — it adds up to 30 minutes of exercise for the day.
QUICK TIPS TO REDUCE STRESS AND STAY IN SHAPE AT WORK
Here is Evans’ list of quick tips to help you manage stress and take care of your health at the office.
1. Perform several short movement breaks. Several times during the day, take a few minutes to do three to five PowerHouse Hit the Deck cards, go up and down a couple of flights of stairs, or go outside for a walk around the building. Short bursts of intense physical activity burn off stress hormones and release endorphins and restore balance.
2. Take frequent snack breaks. Eat several small meals throughout the day to manage blood glucose levels. Why? When blood glucose levels get too low, it puts stress on the body, sends it into survival mode and you get “hangry,” an unpleasant combination of angry, impatient, critical, and easily pushed over the edge.
3. Minimize caffeine, nicotine and alcohol. Many people tend to reach for these when feeling stressed out. In reality, all of these substances release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which actually increase physiological stress on the body.
4. Don’t overeat at lunch. Many people skip breakfast, work all morning, are famished by the time lunch rolls around and then eat an enormous meal. Putting too much glucose into the system at one time adds stress to the body because greater levels of insulin must be released and any glucose that can’t be used is stored in the fat cells. Not only is eating too much at once a stress on the body, carrying around extra fat also places stress on the system.
5. Go for a stretch. If you can’t take an official movement break during a long meeting or conference call, you can still move your body. Do some stretching to release muscular tension and stress: Reach forward to stretch your upper back and shoulder, lift each ear away from the shoulders to stretch your neck, cross one foot over the opposite knee and lean forward slightly, and bring the hands behind the back, gently lifting to stretch the chest.
By incorporating a few simple workplace strategies to move your body and reduce your stress, you’ll find that the quality of your life, health and fitness improves. You’ll breathe easier, feel more relaxed, look better, sleep sounder, get sick less frequently, and actually have the desire and energy to smile and be happy.