Exercise can reduce stress

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PRINGLE: Now, you always hear people say they're trying to reduce the stress in their lives because they think that's healthier for them. When stress was first identified by Dr. Hans Selye years ago, there was stress and distress. And stress was neither negative nor positive. I think we have imbued it with our modern lives with the feeling that it is something that overwhelms us and is a negative thing.

However, Peter Jensen is someone who counsels athletes, coaches them, deals with facing stress head-on, and talks about its huge benefits to our lives into our well-being.

JENSEN: Well, I think stress, like anything else, if there's too much of it it's distress. And certainly I don't want to perpetrate the myth that you should be looking for a lot of stress in your life. Many things you want to try to avoid if they're stressful. But the truth of the matter is, we are very capable of dealing with stress, we're designed to deal with stress. And for many of us we improve in those situations.

If you take fitness, for example, if we didn't put bones and muscles under stress they would never get any better. Now, if you did too much you'd end up with overuse injuries.

PRINGLE: So you got to exercise.

JENSEN: That's right, you got to put something under stress. I was with a radiologist in Saskatoon. He was an 84-year-old man. And he showed a radiograph of a woman who had been given false teeth 30 years earlier in a remote situation in northern Saskatchewan. And she hadn't used the teeth because they really bothered her. And she had no jawbone. Like, the bone was gone.

And his point was that exercise, for example, is much more important for bone density than, say, calcium and things like that. Our body was meant to be used. And, of course, with a modern lifestyle we don't use our body all that much.

PRINGLE: So when you're counselling Elvis Stojko or somebody like that -- who hasn't been having that much fun lately --

JENSEN: No, he hasn't, no.

PRINGLE: But you say, okay, facing injury or facing competition, what do you do? I mean for breathing and for coping with things.

JENSEN: Well, I guess the first thing we try and find in any situation, and certainly in any performance situation -- maybe a stress situation -- you're trying to find some aspect of it that you can control. And very often your only choice is your outlook. Like, how do you choose to look at it? You know, where is the opportunity? What can I learn in here? It doesn't mean that you're enjoying it, it doesn't mean that you would rather --

PRINGLE: Be lying on the couch somewhere.

JENSEN: Exactly, exactly. But then you try to come up with some techniques that will help you and work for you in that situation. And I'm just struck in everyday life with how many people who really don't have any idea of how to manage any kind of stress. The minute their heart rate starts to pound or their palms start to sweat, they don't have any techniques, they don't have any skills to help them manage.

And so, one of the skills that we teach athletes is a breathing technique called centring. And it's a very simple technique. It comes from Akido, one of the martial arts. Because in English we say "tension rises". Well, it actually physically rises. Our shoulders come up, our voice comes up, our breathing comes up. And what you do when you centre is you intentionally lower.

PRINGLE: Well, here, we can go through the list. We've got the list of these and what to do with this breathing technique thing.

JENSEN: These are the things that will cause us to go up, and when they do go up here are some of things we can do about it. And so, you focus on the diaphragm when you breathe in and you hold the air for a second. And when you let it out you shift your attention to your shoulders, which fall. And if you're standing your knees bend.

So if you watch an Elvis Stojko, for example, when he is just about to start his program you will see him lower his centre of gravity. You'll see him centre. On the golf tour you'll see them. They use these breathing techniques all the time. Miriam Bedard, who won two gold medals in Lillehammer in biathlon, can lower her resting heart rate over 50 beats in two breaths. These are skills. When you learn the skills you learn how to manage yourself.

PRINGLE: Is breathing the best way to handle stress?

JENSEN: Well, breathing is a good way to handle it because often we experience it at the body level.

PRINGLE: I'm always telling this to my children. I'm really happy, actually, to have this reinforced.

JENSEN: Sometimes we try to go in at the mind level for everything -- with self-talk or reframing or some technique. But in reality if we experience it at the body level why not go in with a body skill?

If you think about it, every cell gets a message. It's sort of like a teletype message when we're under stress. And everything rises up. And when you breathe in a certain manner and you physically lower your arousal level at the body level the mind also gets a message: Hey, let's back off.

PRINGLE: Now, we had one other board up that talked about the major stress points in daily life. So, we need these. One of the things you counsel is older people, saying that often you don't have enough in your life. You need to be stimulated to feel alive.

JENSEN: Very much so, very much so. And so, the external demands placed on elderly people are sometimes very limited.

I observed a situation in a grocery store short while ago when I was shopping. There was a woman in with her mother -- clearly her mother. And the mother was saying to the young lady -- I'd say the mother was in her 80s -- and she would say, "How much should I buy? Like, I don't know." And she said, "Mom, you have been making meatloaf for 40 years. How much do you usually buy?" In other words, she wasn't going to remove the responsibility for that simple decision from her mother. Because, in my opinion, it would've been doing a disservice to her mother. You know, if you don't use it, you lose it. And I think being forced to make decisions, being forced to decide certain things, is important for us.

PRINGLE: And people should keep this in mind when they think they're doing a favour -- especially as people retire and get on. You think, "Oh, well, don't you worry. You've done enough now." But you've got to do something.

JENSEN: Exactly.

PRINGLE: Or you may as well just dig your grave.

JENSEN: I'm 100 percent in agreement with that.

PRINGLE: Alright, fine. Oh, we're in agreement. Alright, fine. Then we'll stop talking. Very nice to see you, though. And thank you for the advice.

JENSEN: Thank you.