How Much Exercise Do You Need?

It is likely that you are getting more routine exercise than you realize, for activities such as cleaning your house, shopping, carrying bags of groceries, light gardening, and slow walking all qualify. But clearly this is not enough. To maximize your ability to cope with stress, you need to focus on becoming physically fit, which for most of us requires involvement in a regular exercise program. The basic recommendation is that you engage in thirty minutes of physical activity each day. These thirty minutes of exercise need not be performed at one time. You can increase your activity level by climbing the stairs instead of taking the elevator, walking a few blocks to the store instead of driving, taking the dog for a walk instead of letting him roam in the yard, doing yard work, and so on.

Ideally we recommend that you engage in the aerobic activity of your choice at least three times weekly. Begin and end your workout with stretching exercises for warmup and cooldown. On the days between aerobic workouts, engage in weight training. Practice stretching whenever your muscles feel tense, and in between as well. If you are really out of shape due to years of inactivity, obesity, poor diet, smoking, or advanced age, begin slowly with only low-intensity exercises or leisurely walking. If you have any heart problems that you are aware of, or if you are past 40 and have not exercised in years, consult your physician before embarking on any aerobic activity.

An ideal exercise program for a healthy young person that would provide the greatest amount of health and fitness benefits with the least investment in time would be as follows:

Aerobic activity Three to five times weekly Twenty to sixty minutes per session
Resistance training Twice weekly

Eight to ten exercises, covering all major muscle groups

Eight to twelve repetitions per exercise
Stretching Three to five times weekly

Getting Yourself Motivated

You may already be involved in a regular exercise program. If so, we urge you to continue and make sure there is an aerobic component to your regimen. But if you are one of the many who sincerely want to start an exercise program, yet always find reasons to delay getting started, pay careful attention to this next section. Recognize that the reasons you give yourself for avoiding exercise are powerful and must be faced and challenged if you are to graduate from being a couch potato.

The most common excuse people cite for not exercising is lack of time. If this reason is familiar to you, take a moment to figure out how many hours weekly you spend sitting in front of the TV. The average American adult watches thirty hours of TV a week! Of those hours you spend in front of the boob tube, how many are truly essential to your well-being? Many times we fool ourselves and justify TV watching by assuming that we are “relaxing.” But, do not confuse inactivity with relaxation. It is quite possible to be sprawled in front of the TV and maintain high levels of tension. Exercise can release this tension. This is not to say that it is impossible to relax by watching TV, but television viewing is not a particularly effective stress reducer. There is a difference between active and passive relaxation. So if you are opting out of exercise in favor of the TV, it may be time to really look at your priorities. Without exercise, you will become increasingly tense and out of shape and your energy level will diminish. Can you really afford to continue on this path? Could you sacrifice a few of your TV hours to devote to exercise?

Once you begin an exercise program, you can take several steps to help maintain your practice:

Start out slowly and build up gradually to avoid injury or excessive soreness.

Set weekly goals (for example, walk briskly three times a week, increase by five minutes each week) and reward yourself for mastering your goals. Make your goals realistic.

Pay attention to the rewards of exercise (for example, increases in energy, stamina, clothes getting looser).

Publicize your goals to friends and family. Public announcement of goals makes it more likely that you will strive to meet your goals.

Visualize yourself succeeding. Imagine yourself meeting your exercise and fitness goals.

By all means, take the necessary precautions to avoid injury:

  1. Do not overdo it. For aerobic exercises, start out gradually and build up to a minimum of twenty minutes of nonstop activity. For anaerobic exercises, build up slowly as well, depending on your skill level and stamina.

  2. Use the proper equipment and clothing, especially shoes.

  3. Stretch for five to ten minutes prior to beginning an aerobic workout in order to warm up your muscles. Walk or stretch for three to five minutes after an aerobic workout to cool down and avoid muscle cramps.

  4. If you are ill, do not exercise. Take the day off.

  5. If at any time during or after exercise you develop symptoms such as chest pain, dizziness, tachycardia (rapid heartbeat that does not slow down when you rest), or difficulty breathing, stop exercising immediately and consult your doctor.

  6. Do not exercise after eating a big meal. Wait at least two hours.

  7. Do not push yourself past your limit. Use common sense.

  8. Do not smoke.

If you cannot spare thirty minutes daily to exercise, try fifteen or twenty minutes. Some exercise is much better than none. If you have been sedentary for a long time and are very out of shape, start out slowly, perhaps with just a fifteen-minute walk daily. Keep in mind that the worse your fitness level is, the sooner you will see and feel the results.

Achieving a Restful Night of Sleep

Have you ever wondered why we need to sleep? One outdated theory suggested that we sleep in order to rest our brain—but our brain cells are quite active even when we sleep. It appears that we sleep to rejuvenate our tired bodies and to recover from stress. During sleep, or any period of deep relaxation, our body's natural healing mechanisms are accessed and we are able to repair bodily damage and combat illness. That is why we generally need to sleep more when we are ill. Likewise, our need for sleep may increase during periods of change, stress, or depression as our body counteracts the wear and tear from our stressful day. Chronic lack of sleep or irregular sleep can have ill effects. Research suggests that people who sleep more than seven hours nightly live longer. Thus, long-term sleeplessness can subdue your immune system. But for the most part, most people can skip a night's sleep and still be functional the next day. Even people who remain sleepless for several consecutive days show few serious disturbances in functioning. Most often, the effects include temporary lapses in attention and concentration along with occasional confusion or misperception. These cognitive lapses may be episodes of borderline sleep. Oftentimes, the anticipation of the negative effects of a sleepless night is more damaging than the actual effects. That is, many people tend to catastrophize about how horrible it will be if they do not get a good night's sleep. If you expect the worst, that is often what you will get, via self-fulfilling prophecy. The truth is that most people can sustain a night without sleep very easily, with some afternoon fatigue being the main consequence.

One of the most common stress-related emotional problems is insomnia. It is quite common for most people to experience some form of insomnia during stressful periods. For some people, insomnia is a common occurrence and becomes a stressor as well as an effect of stress. There are three varieties of insomnia: (1) sleep-onset insomnia, which refers to difficulties with falling asleep; (2) frequent awakening with difficulty falling back to sleep; and (3) early-morning awakening. Sleep-onset problems are associated with anxiety and high levels of arousal, while early-morning awakening is more related to depression. Over thirty million Americans complain of insomnia; it appears to be a more frequent complaint for women. Poor sleepers are more ruminative, depressed, shy, and concerned with physical complaints are than good sleepers.

Insomniacs often exacerbate their problem by trying to force or will themselves to sleep. All that does is make matters worse, for efforts to will yourself to sleep only lead to further arousal and sleeplessness. Falling asleep is a process of letting go, of getting out of your own way and allowing sleep to happen rather than making it happen. Millions go to bed each night dreading the possibility that sleep will be elusive, and these very worries help create and perpetuate the problem. You cannot force yourself to sleep. What you can do is allow yourself to relax and let your mind wander elsewhere. If falling asleep or staying asleep is problematic for you, use the following suggestions to help ameliorate your difficulty. The key here is to follow the suggestions and let go of the need for any particular result. Trust your body to do the work for you if you make relaxation, rather than sleep, your primary goal.

How to Get to Sleep and Stay Asleep

  1. Challenge irrational beliefs. Your concern over falling asleep only increases your autonomic arousal and muscle tension. Insomniacs often convince themselves that the following day will be ruined unless they get to sleep immediately. Do yourself a favor and remind yourself that a poor night's sleep is not a major catastrophe. You will function just fine the next day, albeit a bit tired at midafternoon, but overall you will survive and be okay. Also, remind yourself that your body will not let you die from lack of sleep. If you are totally exhausted, your body will find a way to get some sleep.

  2. Avoid sleeping pills. Numerous problems are associated with reliance on sleeping medications, including (1) becoming dependent or addicted, (2) in creasing tolerance such that your dose has to be continually increased in order to get the same benefits, and (3) attributing your sleep to the medication rather than developing confidence in your own ability to relax and sleep.

  3. Limit caffeine and alcohol consumption. Everyone is aware that drinking coffee or other caffeinated beverages shortly before bedtime can interfere with falling asleep. But what most people don't realize is that even if you are able to fall asleep readily following caffeine consumption, the quality of your sleep will be disturbed. Caffeine disrupts sleep architecture. That is, it interferes with your normal sleep cycles and rhythms, causing restlessness and less time spent in deep sleep. The result is that you feel less rested. Also, caffeine is metabolized very slowly by your body, so it exerts its effects hours after your caffeine buzz has worn off. Limit your intake of caffeinated beverages to two daily, and do not consume any after 6:00 P.M. if you are having any difficulties with sleep. Alcohol, on the other hand, may assist you in initially falling asleep (by knocking you out like any other sedative), but it also disrupts sleep architecture by causing light, restless sleep and promoting frequent awakening.

  4. Create an environment conducive to sleep. It goes without saying that you need a quiet, comfortable place to sleep, but other factors are important as well. Most people sleep best in a fully darkened room. The presence of light causes biochemical changes that promote wakefulness and appears to disrupt your circadian rhythms. It is as if we are biologically programmed to be awake during the day. Incidentally, if you awaken at night to use the bathroom, don't turn on the light. You may find it harder to return to sleep following exposure to bright light. If your bedroom does not remain dark, or if your work schedule requires that you sleep during the day, invest in dark shades or curtains to block the light. You could even try draping towels over your window. Most people sleep better in a cool room (60° to 70° F). Another factor that helps you fall asleep quickly is the use of a constant sound, such as that generated by a white-noise machine. After only a short time, sleep becomes conditioned to the soft, soothing hum. A ceiling fan can serve the same purpose, and adds the calming breeze. In addition, most disturbing noises will be masked. If noise continues to be a problem, use earplugs.

  5. Time your eating and exercising appropriately. Sometimes a small, carbohydrate-rich snack before bed can promote sleep (believe it or not, milk and cookies seems to be quite effective), but eating a large meal close to bedtime is a big mistake. Not only will it inhibit sleep, but you will be more likely to suffer gastrointestinal distress and gain weight. Engaging in a program of regular exercise will facilitate your ability to sleep, but exercising too close to bedtime will wind you up rather than down. Schedule your workouts at least three hours before you plan to retire for the night.

  6. Focus only on relaxation, not sleep. When lying down to go to sleep make relaxation, rather than sleep, your goal. Practice your breathing exercises or progressive muscle relaxation. Remember, several hours of deep relaxation has virtually the same rejuvenating effect on your body as sleep. Progressive muscle relaxation exercises have been shown to reduce sleep-onset insomnia significantly in a number of studies (Lick & Heffler, 1977).

  7. Use participant imagery. Another method for inducing relaxation is to let your mind wander to a pleasant scene or fantasy. Imagine yourself relaxing on a sun-drenched beach with waves lapping at the shore; visualize yourself walking in a lush forest or a fragrant garden; or create any relaxing scene that is meaningful for you. When doing this, it is important that you create a scene in which you are a participant. That is, imagine that you are directly experiencing the fantasy, enjoying the sights, sounds, smells, and good feelings associated with the imagery. It is the difference between imagining being on a quiet desert isle while being massaged and pampered, versus fantasizing about someone else in the situation.

  8. Use stimulus-control methods. The key here is to convert your bed from a trigger for worry and restlessness to a place where you can relax and escape from worries. When you go to bed, focus on relaxation. If worries come up, focus on your breathing. If these thoughts return, imagine them as printed words on a movie screen that are passing you by. Watch the words disappear off the end of the screen and bring your focus back to your breathing. If worries persist or you are not asleep within fifteen minutes, get up and go somewhere else that you have designated as your “worry place.” If worries still intrude, repeat the procedure. Allow your worry place to be associated with obsessive concerns and separate your bed from these intrusions. In the same vein, do not study or snack in bed; you run the risk of converting your bed into a trigger for hunger or concerns over everything you have to do tomorrow. For most people with sleep difficulties, this suggestion may be the most crucial one to follow.

  9. Establish a regular sleep pattern. Create a regular routine, especially during the week. Avoid napping, which decreases sleepiness at bedtime. Try going to bed at approximately the same time and waking at approximately the same time, to get your body conditioned to a routine. Oversleeping in the morning to try to compensate for difficulty falling asleep the night before will make you less ready to sleep at your normal bedtime the following evening, and will thus perpetuate sleep-onset insomnia.

Above all, remember that it really does not matter if you do not get to sleep early this night. You will survive. Catastrophizing about a poor night of sleep creates more stress than losing a few hours of sleep.

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