Stress has become an inevitable part of our lives today. About eight out of ten Indians suffer from stress and anxiety. Though stress seems like a demon that can be handled within, experiencing stress regularly can have an adverse effect on our lives.
After a report by the American Psychology Association survey, it was revealed that many people had experienced physical and emotional exhaustion and health problems when they experienced stress regularly and that their overall stress levels had increased compared to the previous year.
Stress is impossible to eradicate; however, there are plenty of methods backed by research, concluding that stress can be managed to an extent where it almost feels non-existent. People have resorted to medication and other forms of professional therapy, but in reality, stress and anxiety can be managed without taking an external medium.
When people were asked how they dealt with their stress levels, 18% said that they spoke to friends and family about it, 17% said that they usually slept when they got too stressed, 14% people resorted to movies and social media entertainment, 13% claimed to listen to music, 14% people said that they loved eating when stressed, 15% chose to exercise or do some activity, and the rest looked towards medication and other narcotics.
The above methods are the most common coping techniques for stress management, but most of them are not healthy and can be the root cause of long term addictions and other mental disorders. While most of these coping techniques may have a negative effect on our life, exercise, and sports amongst these might be the most recommended by health professionals throughout the world.
How does playing sports reduce stress?
Playing an exhilarating sport is a form of releasing physical stress, but does this physical stress really help our mental stress? Any form of workout that uses your body more than you would normally use in your daily life is the key to a much more relaxed and calmer state of mind.
Many people often disregard this advice for plenty of reasons; one of them being that exercising or playing a sport is itself very hard and frankly takes up a large chunk of their time. Most people who deal with constant stress also want quick results; thus, they advocate for medication and other alternatives.
Though working out through sports can actually bring remarkable changes to your body and mind, it can also improve your cognitive thinking and problem-solving skills. When you play a sport that requires a fair amount of exercise and physical exertion, you can notice changes in your metabolism and heart rate almost instantly.
Sports being a regulated form of interaction between two or more players, needs to be followed by specific rules and regulations. It has a unique quality to relax and provide stimulation to your thinking abilities during gameplay.
It is a very common phenomenon in many great athletes and has been clinically proven to be a successful alternative to any type of stress medication. So, in simple terms, if athletes and even patients can derive positive results on their mental health from playing sports, then so can you.
What is the science behind this?
While stress may be the first thing that dissipates, research has also shown that when you continuously use your physical and mental ability to play a sport, it can be one of the healthiest coping techniques for depression and anxiety as well.
Neurochemical reactions occur when you use your physical strength to play a sport. Cortisol and adrenaline are the two main stress-causing chemicals in our body that are released when we are a little mentally agitated. Physically using your body during exercise or sport reduces these two stress hormones in your body.
Not only does physical exercise through sports reduce these hormones, but they also increase the production of endorphins, our body's natural painkiller chemicals, and mood elevators found in our brains. When endorphins are released, they give us a “runner's high” that makes us feel light-headed, relaxed, and optimistic.
Research has also found a shift in several behavioural aspects that contribute to the emotional benefits of exercise through sports. When you play a sport that requires a decent amount of physical exhaustion, your body goes through several changes to keep you in that state. In other words, your body uses up all the energy and fat stored to keep you from fainting or collapsing while you are playing the sport. As a result, many people can notice their waistlines, stomach fat, face fat, and other chubby portions of their bodies reduced.
It improves your self-image and gives you a sense of accomplishment. Not only do you become confident, but you also earn a little sense of mastery and self-discovery that you can endure good amounts of physical exhaustion and stress—further giving you confidence for succeeding in other aspects of your life. A sense of discipline sets in, and before you even know it, your lifestyle would have experienced drastic positive changes.
Because sports require a specific setting to play in, visiting these gymnasiums and sports complexes allows us to get away from our daily monotonous stress-filled life and exercise in some solitude. Plus, who knows, we might also end up making new friends at such places.
The famous St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that “All men need leisure.” Sports being a form of recreational activity, allows your body to step out of the usual world you are typically used to and helps you expand creatively.
There is a large plethora of sports that require your mental and physical abilities. Choosing the sport which you are most physically compatible with can be the first step to a calmer mind. Many people look towards heavy lifting exercises, and others look for repetitive exercises that do not require equipment at all.
Amongst these, walking and running are some of the most popular examples. Even a 20-minute stroll can clear your mind and reduce your cortisol levels. However, some people believe that exhaustion till the breaking point limit, helps them achieve calmer states.
The reason why equipment like ellipticals is widely used is that, along with burning calories, these machines also stretch your muscles, as a result giving you a relaxed body after the workout is over.
Top sports that can help reduce stress
Swimming is one of the oldest sports to be ever played. Swimming requires plenty of physical exertion, as you are cutting your way through the resisting water. Swimming is known to lower the indices of depression and is often recommended for mentally challenged people. This exercise is hardwired in our brains, thanks to evolution. So, anyone can start swimming at any age.
Tennis is the next best exercise when it comes to physical effort and exhaustion. Tennis is one of the best aerobic exercises, and can easily burn as many calories as any other cardiovascular exercise. Tennis often involves hand-eye coordination, sprinting, pivoting, slams, etc. all of which release large amounts of endorphins in your brain. However, tennis should be played only when one's arm muscles are fully developed or have no future threat. In other words, kids should be allowed to play tennis after 6 years, and adults should reduce playing tennis after 70 years. Here are some exercises which are suggested by experts for the game of badminton and tennis.
Wrestling is another great sport that reduces stress and anxiety. It is a form of defence art, but the fitness and skill involved in this sport require a lot of exercise and mental awareness. Practising wrestling is not as scary as it sounds; it is a fun and exciting activity. One of the best things about wrestling is that it requires a strict disciplined mindset and consistency. Over time, one can master wrestling faster than any other sport. Wrestling does burn a lot of calories, but not more than cardio exercises. All age groups can do wrestling.
Running might be the easiest sport. It is known to be one of the most effective sports and burns more calories than any other sport. Running helps build bone structure as well and reduces muscle loss as your age increases. Running for even 20 mins can release large amounts of endorphins, which can get you a “runner’s high.” This sport is recommended for rehabilitation patients and mentally challenged people. Running is a demanding sport, but it is easily the most rewarding sport on the planet. Age is not a limitation of this activity.
May and June are popular months for almost any cycling event on the planet. That is because cycling is the next best thing after running. Cycling is an excellent cardiovascular exercise and can exponentially reduce your chances of getting any heart, blood pressure-related issues in the future. Cycling reduces stress levels, and to be honest, is a fun activity. Cycling boosts muscular strength, and flexibility, and gives you similar runners high. Cycling can be enjoyed by all ages, be it 3 or 103.
Though exercise through sports is most recommended, many people lack the ability to pick up sports and stick to them consistently. Sometimes, the location where you live might be really far from the nearest sports centre or gym. During times like these, doctors often recommend breathing exercises, meditation, and yoga. Read - 6 Ways Yoga can turn you into a better athlete
Even if yoga seems like a big step to take, with a little effort, you can master it in a matter of weeks. Gentle stretching through yoga postures has a cultural significance in Hindu Mythology, and there are over 1000 postures that not only help you relieve stress but can heal other chronic diseases like PTSD, chronic pain, asthma, etc.
But if yoga is not your thing, then simple breathing exercises can help you tackle your daily stress as well. Our breath is the only thing that is so well-wired in our brains that we are unaware of it even happening. Rapid, shallow, and erratic breathing can release large amounts of endorphins in your brain, giving you the “runner’s high” without even running.
To master relaxation at will, you need to learn how to control your breathing. Here are a few steps to help you start:
- Take a deep breath and let your chest and stomach inflate.
- Hold your breath for a short period.
- Exhale slowly, chanting some mantra or whatever relaxes you.
- Repeat this for 10 minutes and see the changes yourself.
As easy as it may seem, controlling one's breath is truly a skill that takes a lifetime to master. But even if you master it 1%, you will notice exponential changes in your stress, anxiety, and depression. Practice is what keeps you on track for such activities, so always be consistent. Constantly try to practice this 3-5 times a day.
Progressive muscular relaxation techniques
When you are stressed, many times you might experience stiffness in your shoulders or other parts of your body. These tense muscles over time can be devastating. Learning to relax these muscles can help you tackle your physical stress and can help you in many other sports as well.
Unlike meditation and other sports, muscle relaxation techniques can take a little longer to show results, but physically you will experience a sense of relief and relaxation almost instantly. Progressive muscular relaxation gives the best results when performed in a quiet and isolated place. Find comfortable seating like a yoga mat or a thin mattress.
Follow a regime that you can improve over time. Start by listening to a recording or watching a video, once the routine sets in, all you will need is the mat.
Progressive muscle relaxation focuses on only major muscle groups. Learn to tighten each muscle without giving yourself a cramp, maintain the position for 20 seconds and gently relax. When you feel your muscles relaxing, concentrate on the release of the stress and tension in that specific area of your body.
Here are a few techniques that can help you get started:
- Start with your facial muscles first, and then work downward towards the feet.
- Forehead - Wrinkle your forehead and curve your eyebrows, hold the position and then release.
- Eyes - Close your eyes tightly, hold, and release.
- Nose - Wrinkle your nose upward without using your hands, flare your nostrils, hold and release.
- Tongue - Push your tongue firmly against the top of your jaw, hold, and relax.
- Face - Grimace, hold for a while, and then ease.
- Jaws - Clench your jaws, hold and then release
Exercise through sports not only relieves stress but also makes you master the sport you like playing. Consistency and discipline in exercising can even help you recover from long-term illnesses. There are plenty of sports like football, basketball, badminton, boxing, grappling, running, and swimming that can tame your stressful mind and benefit various other skills in your life.
Regular physical activities can lower your cholesterol levels, reduce blood pressure, and can drastically diminish blood sugar. Exercising, in general, gets our hearts pumping, which further cuts down the risk of strokes, diabetes, colon and breast cancer, osteoporosis, fractures, obesity, dementia, and depression. Not only do sports and exercises make you healthy, but they can also reduce the ageing process, and increase overall energy and endurance to pain.
Sports have been around for centuries now and are well-documented in almost every culture in the world. Playing a sport for at least 15-30 mins can increase your mortality rate. Especially during pandemics and other outbreaks, constant physical exercise through sports can boost your immunity and remove all the angst that keeps you down.
Also, if you want to reduce your stress through sports, it is crucial to choose a sport you associate with positively. If a sport like grappling or boxing stresses you out more than it relaxes you, then choosing another sport might be the best option here.
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