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As Threat of Syria Intervention Looms, Fitness Can Cut Military Stress Levels

With life getting tense for military members and their families as America moves toward a conflict in Syria, we examine how fitness centers can help relieve stress for everybody.

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Military fitness centers are usually considered a place for personnel to stay fit or for their family members to drop a few pounds. But with life getting tense for military members and their families as America moves toward a conflict in Syria, they can also provide a refuge and a place to burn off stress.

According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise has a direct stress-busting effect.

"Physical activity helps to bump up the production of your brain's feel-good neurotransmitters, called endorphins," says a report from the Mayo Clinic. "As you begin to regularly shed your daily tensions through movement and physical activity, you may find that this focus on a single task, and the resulting energy and optimism, can help you remain calm and clear in everything that you do."

And with President Obama talking with Congress about potential action in Syria, tensions for many Americans - and especially those connected to the military - are running even higher than normal.

"The stress comes from fear in two directions from the military side as one awaits and enters a combat situation: death of oneself and death of comrades in arms, some of whom have often saved one's life," says Dr. Thomas Gutheil, a board-certified forensic psychiatrist, Harvard professor and Navy veteran. "And on a personal level, worries about family, kids and everyday life while deployed or waiting to be deployed can add to the stresses faced by those in the military."

Stress is often defined as the perception of a threat or danger that triggers a behavioral change. When one perceives that he or she cannot cope with the demands of a particular situation, it may lead to physical responses, including increased metabolism, heart rate, blood pressure, rate of breathing and blood flow to muscles. These physiological changes that prepare one to fight or run away were first described as the "fight or flight" response by Harvard physiologist Dr. Walter Cannon in 1942.

In contrast, some 40 years after Cannon's findings, Dr. Herbert Benson defined the "relaxation response," the opposite of the "fight or flight" response, as a process that produces decreased metabolism, heart rate, blood pressure and rate of breathing.

"In extra stressful situations people often turn to destructive behaviors such as alcohol, drugs and overeating - these are counterproductive and will lead to more stress," says Jeff Rutstein, a personal trainer specializing in the stress-busting benefits of exercise and founder of feelgoodexercise.com. "When under stress, exercise will help clear your head and put things in perspective. When taking care of body and mind, one will be less apt to overeat and use alcohol and substances to relieve anxiety.

When most people think of exercise to beat stress, yoga and other mind-body modalities come to mind. Yoga combines stretching exercises, controlled breathing and relaxation. Yoga can help reduce stress, lower blood pressure and improve heart function.

There are many things one can learn on the yoga mat that can be taken to the everyday stress of the real world," says Sue Lynch, founder of There & Back Again, a nonprofit organization that supports the well-being of service-members through mind-body practices. "There is a response we can teach before deployment that can keep military members and their families from being overwhelmed from stressful situations. This can aid as they await orders to deploy or between missions."

But offering gentle exercise is not the only way military fitness centers can help members reduce stress while leaders decide whether to take action against Syria or any other threat. Sometimes just some heart-pounding, muscle-pumping activities can do as much good as finding Zen.

"You can get some stress-relieving benefits from going on a run, taking a class or lifting weights," says Rutstein. "I have created a specialized resistance program 'mindful movements,' which are very slow and controlled exercises that completely focus on the muscle group being worked creating a mind-muscle connection. Instead of focusing on your negative thoughts the focus is on the tightening, contracting and lengthening of the particular muscle group being worked. This feeling can then be taken into all forms of exercise."

As stress levels build, it is a great opportunity for fitness centers to help their members come together as a community and overcome the stress of everyday life and more.

Three tips for fitness centers to help combat, combat stress:

1. Fitness centers often focus on building the perfect body. More important, they should be focusing on the mental health benefits of exercise. It is possibly the best tool to combat stress and depression.

2. Having yoga on the schedule is great, but fitness center managers need to connect with family readiness groups and commanders to collaborate and promote stress relief fitness.

3. Let members know that challenging mind-body classes are great for beating stress, adding relaxation and improving overall fitness - all keys when preparing for duty.

Interested in more military-specific content? Sign up for AB Military News, our weekly newsletter with content specifically for military sports, recreation and fitness professionals.

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