Most of us are aware of the physical benefits of exercise but we usually only think it benefits us below the neck. We know we can expect stronger muscles and bones; we can lose some weight and slow the aging process but what about our mental and emotional health, can exercise help us there as [...]
You already know that regular exercise can help you shed those extra pounds and improve your health, but did you know that it can also help with stress? Even if you are the happiest person in the world, you still have your bad days. A small argument with your spouse can leave you in a foul mood, and pressures at work can make you feel like punching the wall. The next time you feel this way, hit the streets or the gym.
Exercise helps us in ways that we can immediately notice, like weight loss, lowering blood pressure and lowering cholesterol, never mind improving the way we look and feel about ourselves. Exercise releases endorphins and makes us more active and less likely to sit around.
Exercise also helps with preventing issues many of us face as we age. Building lean muscle helps improve bone density and help prevent osteoporosis. Seniors are more prone to broken bones from falls, and exercise helps to reduce the risk of fractures.
Bodily exercise can help relax the mind, and mental maneuvers can, too. Most often, that means talking out problems with a supportive listener, who can be a friend, a chaplain, or a trained counselor or psychotherapist. But you can also do it yourself, harnessing the power of your own mind to reduce stress. Simply writing down your thoughts and feelings can be very beneficial, and formal meditation exercises have helped many people reduce stress and gain perspective.
Meditation is a prime example of the unity of mind and body. Mental stress can speed the heart and raise the blood pressure; meditation can actually reverse the physiological signs of stress. Scientific studies of Indian yoga masters demonstrate that meditation can, in fact, slow the heart rate, lower the blood pressure, reduce the breathing rate, diminish the body's oxygen consumption, reduce blood adrenaline levels, and change skin temperature.
Although meditation is an ancient Eastern religious technique, you don't have to become a pilgrim or convert to put it to work for you. In fact, your best guide to meditation is not an Indian spiritualist but a Harvard physician, Dr. Herbert Benson. Here's an outline of what Dr. Benson has termed as the relaxation response:
1. Select a time and place that will be free of distractions and interruption. A semi-darkened room is often best; it should be quiet and private. If possible, wait two hours after you eat before you meditate and empty your bladder before you get started.
2. Get comfortable. Find a body position that will allow your body to relax so that physical signals of discomfort will not intrude on your mental processes. Breathe slowly and deeply, allowing your mind to become aware of your rhythmic respirations.
3. Achieve a relaxed, passive mental attitude. Close your eyes to block out visual stimuli. Try to let your mind go blank, blocking out thoughts and worries.
4. Concentrate on a mental device. Most people use a mantra, a simple word or syllable that is repeated over and over again in a rhythmic, chant-like fashion. You can repeat your mantra silently or say it aloud. It's the act of repetition that counts, not the content of the phrase; even the word "one" will do nicely. Some meditators prefer to stare at a fixed object instead of repeating a mantra. In either case, the goal is to focus your attention on a neutral object, thus blocking out ordinary thoughts and sensations.
Meditation is the most demanding of the autoregulation techniques, but it's also the most beneficial and rewarding. Once you've mastered meditation, you'll probably look forward to devoting 20 minutes to it once or twice a day.