How Reframing Stress Can Serve as Exercise Catalyst

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The average member joins a fitness facility with the best of intentions. He or she wants to turn over a new leaf and embrace the habit of regular exercise. Fitness professionals are eager to help their clients achieve their goals, but are they helping members address the mental obstacles that slow their progress? Chronic stress, and how we interpret stress, may be important targets. Here’s a look at how gym operators can help their members reframe stress as a positive catalyst in developing a regular exercise routine.

Habits are new brain pathways

New habits require our brain cells to communicate in a new way. Cells signal to one another repetitively each time you perform a new behavior, and these connections strengthen every time the new behavior is executed.

Eventually, the brain will choose the new path over older habits, making the new habit easier to initiate. Like using your seat belt or tying your shoes, exercise habits can become nearly automatic.

Stress can be a barrier to forming new habits, especially if we have negative interpretations about how stress affects our body. Addressing stress in the gym can help members succeed in achieving fitness goals.

Hormonal influence

Our state of mind is reflected by hormone changes. When we feel nervous or overwhelmed, levels of certain hormones rise in our bloodstream.

Stress-related hormones help us become more alert so that we can prepare to deal with a challenge. For instance, when we feel frustrated or anticipate a difficulty, our adrenal glands release more cortisol and adrenaline (a.k.a. epinephrine). This increases heart rate, blood pressure and sweating.

Elevated stress-related hormones make it difficult to relax after a hectic day. They can make us prone to repetitive negative thoughts that prevent us from falling asleep at night.

In the short-term, stress helps us adapt to challenges. But many struggle to shift into a calmer state of mind for weeks or months at a time. This can lead to feelings of exhaustion and hypervigilance, where we feel an exaggerated sense of danger. And current research suggests that chronic stress can also make it more difficult to create new habits.

Addressing stress

When we feel “stressed-out,” the brain is not inclined to reinforce a new habit. High stress levels make us focus more attention on potential dangers. We grow fearful of embarrassment and are more easily intimidated — two emotions that make new gym experiences less appealing. At the same time, stress-related hormones inhibit parts of the brain involved in forming new habits, making us more likely to revert to old ones.

Stress-related hormones add a layer of difficulty to initiating a new behavior. This doesn’t mean all stress should be avoided, but it does suggest we should introduce healthy stress-coping methods early in our member’s fitness journey and help them understand how they can manage stress in a positive way. 

Stress avoidance is not the answer

When we only consider the harmful effects of stress, it can lead us to think that all forms of stress are bad. Yet the rise in heart rate and sweaty palms are adaptive stress responses that help us overcome challenges. We need stress to develop our full potential, and stress is an important part of the exercise experience itself.
Our long-term health outcomes are strongly influenced by how we interpret our stress responses and our ability to shift into a calm state of mind. Gyms can help their members on both fronts with positive reframing and by offering resources for relaxation and recovery.

Reappraise signs of stress

Our experiences with stress can become more positive when we adjust our interpretation of what stress does to the body.

One in three adults believes that stress is an uncontrollable element that harms their health. This belief leads to a greater susceptibility to mental health issues, even after adjusting for health behaviors and socioeconomic status.

Studies also show that if we are reminded to perceive stress as healthy or adaptive, we perform better at difficult cognitive tests. We can enjoy the experience more when we believe it is healthy to take on a challenge.

Positive reframing

Difficulties in life are unavoidable, but research argues for positive reframing because it limits the negative emotions associated with stress. This is the practice of viewing our current situation in a more favorable way.

For example, we may notice we feel nervous about a future endeavor. Negative framing conjures thoughts such as, “I’m not ready,” “I’m not good enough,” or “I should give up.” Positive reframing helps us view the potential benefits of stress-related changes in the body. For example, we could think of nervous energy as a sign that we are ready for action, an indicator that the body is prepared, or evidence that we are eager to overcome a new challenge.

Admittedly, positive reframing is not easy, especially at first. But like any habit, this technique gets easier through practice. It helps us reduce feelings of distress, nervousness and hopelessness, so it is certainly worth the effort.

Reframing gym interactions

In fitness facilities, reframing can help staff members initiate positive interactions with members. Reappraising the stress in our own lives can help others around us to appreciate the bright side of stress, too.

Group exercise instructors and personal trainers have an opportunity to share positive views of stress in their member interactions. For instance, they may share that their sweaty palms are a sign that they are ready to get started. A group exercise instructor could ask the group to notice the excitement in the room, helping less-confident attendees view the class as something they want to do, rather than something they have to do. These kinds of reminders emphasize that stress responses are natural to every new challenge we embrace.

Gyms: excitement and relaxation

When members walk through your doors, they may aim for calorie-burning workouts. But many members benefit from addressing chronic stress in less rigorous ways. Chronic stress is a widespread issue, with recent surveys indicating that 84 percent of adults feel emotions associated with prolonged stress.

Group classes that are rising in popularity include those that emphasize relaxing breathwork, mindful yoga and flexibility training. Recovery zones within the facility are also becoming more common. Many clubs offer recovery techniques such as massage, myofascial release and other self-care resources such as saunas and steam rooms.

Relaxation resources create a gym setting that helps members focus on all aspects of health, including a healthier mindset. Members leave feeling refreshed and centered, helping them form positive associations with gym visits.

In summary, members need options that fulfill their desires for both heart-thumping and relaxing experiences at the gym. Staff and member interactions can be improved by those who emphasize the positive influence of stress in their lives. And those members who need to find a calm mindset can grow more aware of specific gym resources designed to help them do so. By modeling a healthier relationship with stress, we can help gym-goers recognize that stress-related changes are a natural adaptive response to challenges.

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