The Gym: Today’s Antidote to Stress and Low Self-Esteem

Guest post by Chris Donohoe
Hampstead Health & Fitness member and Anna Jaques Hospital, Senior Psychiatric Counselor.

Stress is a natural part of life. How we deal with it is what matters.

Since ancient times, the human body has been conditioned to respond to stress – perceived danger – by flooding the bloodstream with chemicals (adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol) that prepare it to react by either staying to confront the danger or running away from it. These chemicals cause respiratory rates to increase, blood to be diverted into muscles and away from organs, pupils to dilate, eyesight to intensify and the perception of pain to decrease. They enable the body to engage in enormous physical activity to either combat the danger or flee from it. It’s called the fight-or-flight response. Once the threat has been eliminated, the body returns to its normal, pre-threat state.

Those instincts were developed as our ancient ancestors struggled to survive against deadly threats.

Today, those survival mechanisms are hard-wired in your body. When confronting legitimate threats to your physical safety, the fight-or-flight response is invaluable. The problem is that most stressors today don’t threaten your physical safety, yet the flight-or-fight response is triggered nonetheless. This means that, unchecked, your body has an excess of stress hormones pumping through it that cause aggression and hypervigilance.

That’s where the gym comes in. A good workout helps your body release negative stress hormones. Other ways the gym can help reduce stress hormones: using the sauna to relax, scheduling massage therapy or attending a group class, like yoga, that quiets the mind. And of course, we all know that lack of physical activity can lead to a whole host of serious health problems, including heart disease and obesity. Many people join the gym because it helps them to manage stress and maintain a healthy body. But there’s another benefit to a gym membership that doesn’t get as much attention: heightened self-esteem.

People typically join a gym with specific goals in mind, whether it’s to lose weight, improve blood pressure, manage stress, etc. And the very act of setting those goals and taking steps to achieve them can increase self-confidence and improve self-image.

Social interaction also has an impact on self-esteem, and the gym can provide a great social outlet, whether in the friendships you can make in group classes or those you meet in the weight room or on the cardio machines. (Some people prefer a solitary workout, but for those who want to interact with others, the opportunity is there.)

Another element in the positive-feedback loop: A gym routine can encourage you to make healthier food choices. According to a recent report in the International Journal of Obesity, starting an exercise program can inspire people to eat more healthfully. The report cited a study on 2,680 young adults who undertook a 15-week aerobic exercise program, in which “most dietary pattern scores were decreased following exercise training, consistent with increased voluntary regulation of food intake.  A longer duration of exercise was associated with decreased preferences for the western and snacking patterns while a higher intensity of exercise was linked to an increased preference of the prudent pattern.”  The western pattern is weighted toward red meat, processed foods and sugar, and the prudent pattern is weighted toward fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

In all, the gym is the perfect solution to a number of factors that impact us on a daily basis. It can mean a healthier, stronger body, a better self image and a more resilient mind.

Chris Donohoe
Hampstead Health & Fitness member and Anna Jaques Hospital, Senior Psychiatric Counselor.