These days, we are all under great stress. The pressure and pace of work seem to grow each year, making it more difficult to perform at our best. Keeping a fresh mind and fit body is critical, but how do we do that while keeping up with a demanding schedule?
When you’re under pressure, your nervous system responds by releasing stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. Michael Nevans M.A., director of psychological services at individual counseling and psychotherapy clinic Tokyo Mental Health, spoke to The ACCJ Journal about how stress can affect the body. “Chronic stress impacts several of the body’s major systems, including the cardiovascular, endocrine, and nervous systems.”
During times of mental stress, the mind and body can amplify each other’s distress signals, creating a vicious cycle of tension and anxiety.
“When we are continually entering high stress states, it creates a long-term drain on the body,” he noted.
There are many thoughts on how to combat such stress. Simply being told to relax is not effective, and prescription medicine seems extreme. Natural relief, such as diet and exercise, are extremely effective in lifting one’s spirits. “Exercise increases blood circulation in the brain and stimulates chemicals, such as endorphins and serotonin, that improve mood and can help us deal with stress,” explained Nathan Schmid, managing director and co-founder of Club 360, a multidisciplinary health and fitness practice in central Tokyo.
And Nevans noted: “Exercise engages the body and brain simultaneously, grounding them both in the present. It is really challenging to be thinking of the meeting you will have with your boss tomorrow when you are running and focusing on your breath, stride, and environment. The effect of exercise is a deep sense of relaxation and optimism following the conclusion of the activity.”
For busy executives, fitting exercise into their schedule is difficult. “A fair number of people work a 12-hour day, six days a week,” said Nevans. “And it is challenging to change behavior patterns.” For those wanting to become healthier and reduce work-related stress, making exercise and mental wellness activities a priority is a must.
While making lifestyle changes is challenging, there are gentle ways to begin. “Many people try to change too much too quickly and end up failing. This leads to frustration and disengagement from the process,” Nevans said. “I recommend keeping the initial changes small and sustainable, allowing them to grow on each other over time.”
Starting the day off on the right foot can make going to work less of a stress trigger. Jonathan Kushner, vice president of corporate relations for McDonald’s Company (Japan), Ltd., commented on how he makes time for his training and cycling. “I will get up at 5:30 a.m. and run, bike, or swim for an hour or two, then shower and go to the office. It is a great way for me to start the day and to feel refreshed when I go to work.”
Schmid also gave advice on ensuring that exercise is prioritized. He places importance on understanding the benefits. Starting small can be a good incentive to continue, he said, allowing you to increase the amount or intensity of activities bit by bit.
“For busy people, the most surefire way to make certain you fit in your exercise is to first understand how important it really is for you, and the positive impact it has on your life. This way, you can prioritize exercise and make sure you schedule it in advance rather than leaving it as an afterthought. Choose a form of exercise that you enjoy and realistically have time for. Put it in your diary and stick to it!”
Booking classes can also create a firm commitment to exercise. Nevans recommends finding a personal trainer or a class that you like. Having exercise as part of your routine makes it seem less a chore and more a daily habit. This mindset gives professionals a way to relieve stress that does not seem like an added to-do on top of an already busy week.
“If a day goes by where I don’t have a chance to move my body and do something to release the steam, then it just bottles up, and that’s not productive,” explained Kushner. “Sports and exercise are important in my life and are outlets for stress. I used to have a job where I was traveling a lot. I just needed to pack a jump rope or some resistance bands for training, and some trainers to go for a run.” As an avid cyclist and triathlete, Kushner has managed to incorporate an extensive fitness routine into his already busy schedule.
Exercising in groups or joining classes can intertwine the benefits of exercise with those of socializing. It also can increase stamina and push you to keep up with the people around you.
Kushner spoke about his participation with the Knights in White Lycra, a not-for-profit charity that does long-distance cycling in Japan to raise money for a number of causes.
”For me, it’s important to have a group to train with and a goal. I’ve switched to triathlon training and am not riding as much as I did before, but I am still very social with the Knights in White Lycra riders and others I train with,” he said. “It helps you detach a little bit from work, but also means you have people who are sharing experiences with you and are sharing the same challenges. Many of them are also very busy professionals and are juggling multiple priorities. If they can do it, why can’t I?”
Nevans also spoke about such support. “You will eventually need a peer community to make the change last. Taking some classes and meeting people at gym events can be a great way to form a supportive group for exercise and wellness.”
Krav Maga, the fighting system developed by the Israeli Defense Force in the 1960s, is known as an effective way of working out. Atsuhiro Kuma, owner of MagaGYM in Tokyo, explained that the strength gained from the activity instills confidence that can be applied to work and may lead to success. “In training, people strike punches, kicks, elbow strikes, knee strikes, and many other moves. If students are suffering from mental stress, we can promise they will relieve that through the hard workout that is Krav Maga training.”
The social side of the classes is also extremely beneficial. “Group exercise with a talented instructor will push you to exceed your limit,” Kuma said. Having drive in an aspect of life that is not part of your job can provide a real escape. It’s a time to let go of any work-related stress and completely unwind.
Nevans spoke of his own experience with a personal trainer. “It feels very different doing yoga at home with a video telling me what to do than it does to be in person with my trainer, interacting with him while doing the same poses. Being connected to the other people in the room and working toward a shared goal feels different.” Having friends or a peer network connected to an exercise routine increases commitment and encourages engagement.
DIET AND HABIT
Poor nutrition can also contribute to heightened stress and mental health issues. Many people allow emotions to drive their eating habits. They crave carbs and sugar, which can lead to overeating and, consequently, create physical health issues that come full circle, causing distress.
“Studies have found that nutrition is one aspect that can play a role in mental health. A systematic review by "The American Journal of Public Health" in 2014 found that a diet with high levels of saturated fat and processed foods was associated with poorer mental health in children and adolescents.
Another 2014 study, "The Health Survey for England," published by online medical journal BMJ Open, reported higher levels of wellbeing in those who had a diet high in fruits and vegetables,” explained Schmid. “I have found many of my clients who change to a healthier diet will comment on how it helps them deal with stress and improve their mood.”
Club 360 offers nutrition coaching and counseling for its clients, ultimately offering help and advice for overall fitness and wellbeing. This type of support is beneficial for those who have neither the time nor the knowledge to set an exercise routine or meal plan on their own.
Poor nutrition and stress go hand in hand. “People tend to increase tobacco smoking or alcohol consumption when under stress, and alcohol can lead to inflammation in the body and increased heartburn,” said Nevans. “A shift in dietary patterns and the intake of other chemicals can also impact sleep patterns and other routines, which can exacerbate the effect of stress on the body.”
This stress-related behavior ultimately makes things worse and—for busy professionals who do not have time to cook or do not have the mental space to stop smoking—it can only contribute to already existing tension.
“All of this can seem overwhelming or scary,” Nevans said. “I strongly encourage people to start with something they like and to stick with it. Don’t hesitate to reach out for help.”
CONFIDENCE IS KEY
Schmid also spoke about physical pain and the effect it can have on one’s mental health. “If people don’t have a good understanding of why they are experiencing pain, it can cause a great deal of worry. This worry can then impact work performance and mental health.
“Furthermore, if people—correctly or incorrectly—attribute their pain in some way to their occupation, due to stress levels, time spent sitting and traveling, or repetitive movements, they are likely to consciously or subconsciously create a degree of negativity towards their work environment,” he added.
Regular exercise can help ease the painful, stress-induced symptoms associated with their job. This can change a person’s attitude toward work and benefit their overall performance and happiness.
In addition to health benefits, such as the increase in strength and stamina, the routine and control that comes with exercise could establish a sense of pride and self-confidence. Distracting the body with exercise in an environment away from work and home will open the mind, encourage creative thought, and boost professional success.
Custom Media publishes The ACCJ Journal for the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.
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