Make Happiness Your Cardio

By Carly Pollack, M.S., C.C.N. – May 1, 2014
Photography by Will Ockenden

Does this sound familiar?

The day begins with a loud alarm. Suddenly, to-do lists start running through your head: schedule that work meeting, pack the kids’ lunch, pick up the dry cleaning, and more. Two cups of caffeine combat exhaustion and provide a pick-me-up to face the day. On the way to work, you contemplate how many days this week you’ve already exercised to figure out if tonight’s boot camp is a must. Once at your desk, you open emails, all while wishing it were already Friday.  


Even if your day isn’t this chaotic, we are all experiencing some degree of stress, and it is affecting our health in more ways than we think.

There are six different types of stress: physical (too much or too little exercise), emotional, electromagnetic (most of us hold a palm-sized computer next to our brains everyday), nutritional, chemical, and thermal (too hold or too cold). Although most of the stress we recognize is emotional, all of these factors are funneled together within your body and processed by the nervous system. The higher your level of stress, the harder it is on your body to stay in balance. In other words, if you experience every day as somewhat stressful, your health and waistline will pay the price. 

Adrenal glands are the organs that handle stress response. However, these glands are not meant to contend with chronic stress. When you stress the body, adrenal glands secrete the stress hormone cortisol. As cortisol increases, rest and growth hormones are produced at much lower levels. When this ratio is outside of its optimal range, hormonal balance and health is in jeopardy. The hormones secreted by your adrenals influence all of the major physiological processes in your body. They affect how your body burns fat (with prolonged stress, we start to gain fat around the abdomen), your ability to respond to illness, gastrointestinal function, sex drive, and mostly everything else that leads to health and happiness.

For those of you with high stress, doing high-intensity exercise may just be the added physical stress that puts your body into breakdown mode. Remember that exercise is stress on the body. In a healthy, resilient individual, exercise helps us adapt and get stronger. In a stressed, exhausted body, exercise will only further the hormonal imbalance leading to injury, fatigue, and weight gain. For individuals who are working out, feeling exhausted, and not seeing any benefit, balancing the body before engaging in an intense exercise program will be the key to weight loss and optimal health.

But don’t get too comfortable on the couch. Exercises such as restorative yoga, tai chi, meditation, and nature walking are quite healing to the body and restore balance and, at the same time, allow more peace of mind.  If you find those practices boring and tedious, then they are the exact exercises you need.

Negative thinking causes so much unnecessary stress in our lives and can be healed with a practice of thought shifting. What you put your attention on grows; we tend to focus on what we don’t want rather than what we do. Most of us look in the mirror and our eyes go to the first thing we don’t like about our bodies. There is an underlying story that governs our thought process, which is that “we are not enough.” We aren’t rich, smart, skinny, or pretty enough; therefore, we must push ourselves to the brim of exhaustion to get there. These thoughts block us from enjoying the present moment and keep us stuck in the past and worrying about the future. We operate from a place of “I’ll be happy when…” instead of waking up deciding to be happy now.

The most important exercise you can do is to practice changing your thoughts. Please remind yourself that life is supposed to be fun, that you are, in fact, enough, and that your to-do list will never get done. Make happiness your cardio first and foremost. Your physical exercise will become something you look forward to doing, not just another task on your to-do list. You are right on track, right on schedule. Everything is unfolding perfectly. 



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