Around 20 years ago I contracted shingles. I remember it was a particularly stressful time in my life. As most people know this sometimes debilitating disease starts when the dormant chickenpox virus we caught as children decides to rear its head, often triggered by stress.
Around 3 or 4 years later I was still going through a stressful time (the shingles only lasted for a few months thankfully) and I made a decision that changed my life. Until that point in my life, stress was something I tried to ignore. I was working in direct sales and everyday stress seemed to be the norm as I continually chased various targets. I discovered almost by accident the benefits of regular physical exercise, which I had taken up as I had started to feel old and lethargic.
The key to fitting exercise in to an already overloaded life is to find a time that least affects everyone else in the family and fits into a daily routine. As I have to commute, an early morning visit to the gym was my best option. I commute by motorcycle and find this an important part of my relaxation regimen. Leaving before 6.00 a.m. means traffic levels are lower and commute times are well within an hour from the home counties to a gym near the office in central London. I find running a large capacity motorcycle a lot less stressful than the train! Over the past 16 years I have made it to the gym between 4 and 5 times every week. The benefits are that my stress levels are now very low.
My focus is cardio training, which usually is a Spin class (45 minutes) or a Sprint class (30 minutes) with an extra 15 minutes spinning. On most days I follow this with a 15-minute intense ABS class. When the weather is pleasant and the air seems to be on the less polluted end of the scale I opt for a 5.6 km run around Regent’s Park followed by ABS. I never book classes as I don’t want to feel the pressure of missing one. I have one aim in my training… to become fitter every year as I get older. My resting heart rate is now so low perhaps I should be happy to plateau!
My other love (apart from my girlfriend of course) is paragliding. This really tests my stress levels, especially on take-off (hill launches). Once in the air it is extremely peaceful. An unbelievably fulfilling hobby, it needs patience and perseverance, which I believe I have a lot more of with my generally lower stress levels. In May 2016 I launched myself off a 4000 ft mountain in Annecy, France (sometimes I question whether I really did that!) as part of an intense Simulated Incidents in Flight training. I had to use a parachute when I pushed things too hard for my skill level and could not recover the paraglider. Plummeting in to the lake provided both an unexpected near death experience and a challenge to get better at the sport! (to watch this near death experience fast forward to 7 minutes 30 on this YouTube clip: http://bit.ly/2rB8PXm )
As I get older I feel more alive than I ever did when I was younger. Exercise, motorcycling, and paragliding are my stress management methods. Your methods might be violin practice or baking, but I believe stress is something we can all banish with a bit of planning. Set up a routine you can keep… and keep to it. Sixteen years ago I spoke to a man at my gym. He was a regular and probably the fittest person at the gym and said that he was 58 years old, which really impressed me at the time. The thing is, I may be becoming that person I met nearly twenty years ago…
Research from the University of California, Berkeley, reveals an upside to experiencing moderate levels of stress. But it also reinforces how important it is to keep stress under control. The study, led by post-doctoral fellow Elizabeth Kirby, found that the onset of stress entices the brain into growing new cells responsible for improved memory. However, this effect is only seen when stress is intermittent. As soon as the stress continues beyond a few moments into a prolonged state, it suppresses the brain’s ability to develop new cells. “I think intermittent stressful events are probably what keeps the brain more alert, and you perform better when you are alert,” Kirby says. For animals, intermittent stress is the bulk of what they experience, in the form of physical threats in their immediate environment. Long ago, this was also the case for humans.