How exercise can combat (conception) stress in as little as five minutes! Boys too!
We know that stress is the enemy of many things, but in particular, we know it is the enemy of conception. Trying to conceive in itself can be a stressful process, and on top of that, you’re also probably sick of people telling you how bad stress is for conception. I don’t know about you, but that made me feel even more stressed!! Aaaah!
So, instead of focusing on the negatives: lets focus on some solutions instead…
Exercise is a pretty easy one that has science-backed tangible benefits for stress and the brain. The reality is anyone can adopt some form of it into their daily routine. Particularly when you learn how easily it can make a difference…
Our resident pre and post natal trainer Natalie Ferris has focused extensively on exercise to help conception and one of the things she talks about is using exercise to combat the stress and anxiety many of us now feel - particularly when you are feeling stressed out by trying to conceive.
The good news here is that research shows that doing even five minutes a day can be powerful. Whoot!
We did a quick Q&A with Natalie to find out:
Q: Exercise is a funny thing: done in the wrong way it can be an extra stress on the body - done in the ‘right’ way it can relieve stress: is that really right?
A: Well speaking for myself, a workout usually makes me feel a lot better. Both physically and mentally. The science backs this up. That being said, it does depend on what you’re doing and your circumstances - everyone is different. That being said, a good example of how it can act against you is if you’re going from a very stressful day straight into doing a high intensity HITT class for 45 minutes, that can make things worse. So, it’s all about listening to your body and mixing it up: if you’re feeling stressed and tired, doing a more meditative form of exercise or slower pace can make a huge difference - as we know yoga and Pilates (or exercise where you have to really concentrate on what you’re doing) not only benefits us physically but takes your mind off things and gives your brain a break. It is also about what you enjoy - but get it right and exercise has been shown to fight fatigue (you know that feeling when you dont want to go to the gym but then get a second wind/feel energised after). It also improves your alertness, productivity and can even enhances congitive function of the brain. Not to mention getting the blood flowing.
Sounds good, but how does this actually work?
We all know that stress affects the brain and our thoughts, but did you know it can change the way that brain functions? Ultimately the brain has a huge number of nerve endings and if your body starts to move and to feel better, particularly if you’re doing the type of exercise that can reduce inflammation then this can have a real impact on brain chemistry. Click here for much more on exercise and inflammation and specifically lots more on the knock on impact on our brain and mood. Then of course we all know about Endorphins (natural painkillers) that are released when we exercise. It doesn’t stop there however: exercise can play a major role improving our sleep and sleep quality. Sleep has many benefits but mentally feeling more positive (we know lack of sleep is used as a form of torture - especially new parents!) and hormonal balance are two that can be extremely powerful particularly if you’re trying to conceive - boys: click here to see how much a good nights sleep can impact your ability to conceive. It can become a virtuous circle and combat that nasty cycle of feeling stressed, sleeping poorly and then feeling even worse.
What type of exercise releases these beneficial hormones and neurotransmitters?
Serotonin: the happy hormone, plus dopamine (neurotransmitters) have been shown to be released by exercise - particularly exercise that you enjoy (go figure!). Most studies have shown this from moderate aerobic exercise which has been shown has decrease tension, improve mood, sleep and self esteem (and even better) research has shown real benefits can come doing as little as five minutes a day! What we have learnt is that any type of physical activity can bump up production of these feel good endorphins/neurotransmitters.
You mentioned exercise produces a type of brain food?! What on earth is this and how can it help our stress?
One of the ways that exercise seems to have such a powerful effect on the brain is that it releases something called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (also known as BDNF). This appears to be a core part of how exercise benefits our minds. This can even help the brain build new connections - key for learning - click here for more on how this can help our kids too.
Five minutes is all it can take? Really?!
Yes! It can be as simple as taking a flight of stairs, running to catch up with the bus. Many of us have desk jobs but taking a bit of extra time to take a walk to get lunch or to pick up a coffee can all help. Stretch your legs and get the blood flowing at every opportunity. It really is the case that every little helps when it comes to using physical activity against stress.
You mention ‘aerobic based exercise’ as particularly helpful, but what about HIIT - we have talked about this being a negative for stress on the body and conception?
It’s all about extent and the individual - plus what stage of your life you’re in. We know that exercise can be a powerful benefit, but exercise can also make stress worse. It’s pretty simple really: if your body and/or mind are already stressed and then you pound your body further doing a very high intensity workout you may get a serotonin and endorphin boost, but, without proper recovery you can get inflammation which can be a negative for your body and mind. Rest and recovery is super important - particularly if you are trying to conceive. Click here for much more. For conception, short bursts of exercise (which as above can be simply moving your body) through the day are likely to be better. If you are going to do more intense exercise then recovery between sessions is key, otherwise if the body is stressed and ‘under threat’ it will be much harder to fall pregnant. Click here for more.
What about resistance training?
This is definitely a positive - relatively low impact, getting the blood flowing and concentrating on your breathing as well as fighting inflammation. Good mental distraction too!
Sugar is another physical stressor that exercise can help with:
Incorrect blood sugar control or fluctuations can cause physical stress on our bodies. Exercise has a big effect on glucose levels and tolerance. Blood flow also goes to the brain and it provides the essential nutrients. Abnormal glucose can = brain impairments.
Now the practical part: what is your suggestion for the best way to exercise for our minds?
Once again, you can consider ‘exercise’ as any type of movement doesn’t need to just be exercise in a traditional sense. An hour or two of housework even counts - hoovering the house is cardio! There are so many different ways that you can find that work for you: going for a long walk, dancing, get off the bus one stop earlier. Implement movement into your day. Moving your body when you can. Most important is to find what you enjoy as that way you’re more likely to stick to it.
What about about when it comes to more ‘traditional exercise?
Use body-weight. Ideally you want to do 4-6 circuits per session. Should take you around 30 minutes and doesn’t have to be high impact. I typically do two sessions of this a week: one focused on anterior chain (the front of the body) and one focused on posterior chain (the back) as an example.
Yoga and Pilates: a more obvious type of exercise to fight stress. The focus on breathing and the movements can be meditative for the mind and beneficial for the body. Even better is that modern technology means you can stream these workouts in to the comfort of your own home - often its even more relaxing to do in private without. I love to do a session like this at least once a week and find it incredibly relaxing.
What does your own routine look like?
First of all because of my job i’m lucky as I am physically moving all day long - I get a huge number of steps in per day simply going from client to client - I try and walk wherever and as much as I can. that being said I’ve had to make some changes to my own regime for my own conception journey. Previously I was very into my intense sessions - try to concieve has made me to think differently and care about what I’m doing stress wise for my body and mind. Used to do 4x intense heavy strength and then a run. That’s essentially 5 days a week in the gym. Now i’m doing 2x full body resistance training: one session the front anterior chain and then the reverse (poster is chain), a yoga session and then I love running so a gentle leisurely run simply because I like being out and feel good - especially if its sunny. For me its now more about enjoyment rather than trying to have a six pack. For me the key is to exercise in a way you enjoy - reduce the pressure on yourself, if you can move every day you’re doing great and remember: don’t do things you dont enjoy!
For more from Natalie check out her site here or @natalief_pt on instagram.
This article is for informational purposes only. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The information on this website has been developed following years of personal research and from referenced and sourced medical research. Before making any changes we strongly recommend you consult a healthcare professional before you begin.