Maria Pontillo, DPT Explores Ways to Reduce Stress Levels During This Holiday Season

maria pontillo fitness stress relief holidays

As if life’s random curve balls aren’t challenging enough, now it’s the beginning of the holiday season. Sure, surviving the holidays can be grueling on both your budget and time, but there’s another aspect of your life that is especially affected during this time of year — your mental health. Did you know that about seven out of ten adults in the U.S. say they experience stress or anxiety daily?  According to an Anxiety & Depression Association of America survey on stress and anxiety disorders, many adults have even admitted to high stress or anxiety levels interfering with their lives on a moderate level.

I won’t preach to the choir about how challenging life can be. We’ve all been there — Do you have enough money to pay the bills? Is your boyfriend cheating on you? Why is your sister mad at you? Why are you working 60 hours a week with little social life? Why are you having problems sleeping even though you’re exhausted? What are you doing with your life? These are all questions that all of us ask ourselves at some point in time. We’re all human and apart of living in this world is dealing with stress. The key to dealing with these sorts of psychological issues is learning how to manage and minimize stress. Now the question is how do you accomplish such a task?

The key to combating stress and anxiety is taking a proactive approach. As a licensed physical therapist and a certified Group Fitness Instructor and Personal Trainer with 10 years of experience assisting hundreds of people with their fitness and wellness goals, I can speak first-hand on how essential exercise is to stress-relief and prevention.  Whether your exercise format of choice is yoga, dance, jogging, walking, swimming or attending a group fitness class, dozens of surveys and research studies have proven that regular physical activity produces endorphins that ultimately ease stress and anxiety while subsequently improving one’s mental well being.

With Thanksgiving barely two weeks away, many Americans, especially women, are starting to feel the pressure of the holidays. In fact, the American Psychological Association (APA) found that almost 50 percent of all women in the United States experience increased stress levels during the holidays. Another unsurprising statistic related to mental health and the holidays revealed that roughly 41 percent of women use food while 28 percent use alcohol to cope with their heightened stress and anxiety levels over the holiday season. Overeating or consuming too much alcohol over the holidays can not only reverse your personal fitness progress from the past few months, but it can also lead to impaired judgment calls and further increase stress. Men aren’t off the hook either — a February 2011 issue of Harvard Men’s Health Watch reported that aerobic exercise is not only necessary for a healthy heart, but also for a healthy head (i.e. it counters depression and dissipates stress).

 Here is one more staggering and alarming statistic: In 2011, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that antidepressant use (i.e. doctor prescribed pharmaceutical drugs for anxiety and depression disorders) in the U.S. increased nearly 400 percent over the last two decades. Antidepressants in particular are the most frequently used class of medication by Americans ages 18 to 44 years old. Although stress and anxiety is leading to higher numbers of clinically depressed Americans, in 2008, 23 percent of women ages 40–59 years were taking antidepressants. This evidence proves that if constant stress and anxiety is not recognized and treated properly, severe depression can be triggered and a destructive behavioral pattern can persist.

Let me be clear — treatment is dependent on each individual and some people do truly need anxiety or depression prescription medication. But before you get that far down the rabbit hole, I encourage you to take a positive and proactive stance regarding your mental health. It’s all relative – untreated stress levels can lead to overeating, which can lead to severe weight gain, which can lead to self confidence issues, which can eventually lead to acute depression and the negative spiral can just continue.  It’s important for you to understand that alcoholics or morbidly obese individuals don’t just wake up one morning in that predicament. It takes time — years and years of making poor eating, exercise and lifestyle choices.

I challenge you to choose a positive, proactive alternative health route to dealing with stress. Check out the stress-reduction tips below and take that same “New Year Resolution” mindset that everyone will be talking about in two months and use that in the present moment to reach your fitness goals and reduce your stress levels now!

 1. Use Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Techniques – the theory of Mindfulness promotes meditation, focus and being in the present moment of “now” rather than stressing about the past or worrying about what tomorrow brings. Each new day, try to dedicate 20 minutes to sitting by yourself in silence visualizing a positive and productive day — you will be amazed at how helpful this can be throughout the rest of the day. You can even take a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course to help you cope with stress and reduce it.

2. Set realistic goals for yourself — I believe it is important to enjoy the holidays while at the same time living a moderate lifestyle. So instead of two or three servings of dessert at each holiday party, try to stick to just having one. Try to cut down your alcohol consumption in half. Still find realistic eating and exercise goals that will work for you while allowing you to truly enjoy the holidays and all the yummy sweet treats that come along with the season.

3. Make time for physical activity – Although November and December can be extremely busy and you may find that your local gym is only open for very limited hours, if at all, it’s important to fit 30 to 45 minutes of physical activity into your schedule at least three times a week. Not only does regular physical activity reduce stress and anxiety, it also significantly reduces your risk of heart disease and cancer while reducing the risk of blood pressure and immobility.

4. Make a plan – The saying is true: Failure to plan is a plan to fail! Dedicate a Friday night or Sunday afternoon to making lists and prioritizing your work or school schedule, shopping lists, holiday greeting cards, fitness routine, eating schedule and holiday travel plans! Preparation is the key to minimizing stress and anxiety levels! If you are new to being uber organized, try hitting up your local Target and get a small little holiday binder and organize your plans, fitness regimen and nutritional plan for the next two months! A few hours of preparation now can allow you to remain calm and cool throughout the holiday season.

If you are looking for a way to remain active and fit this holiday season, I encourage you to try my 4-Week Holiday Workout Program! This program launches December 4th and will for sure help you burn off excess calories that you consume over the holiday season. Each virtual workout will consist of a 45 minute high intensity total-body workout that will be sure to give you more energy, help reduce stress and best of all, help you look and feel better! If you are interested in signing up, email me: [email protected]. In addition, if you live in South Florida and want to attend my 90 Minute Turkey Spin Class the day after Thanksgiving, send me an email and I’ll provide you with the details and even add you to the sign-up list! Always remember, If you need an extra push or additional words of encouragement, follow me on Instagram and “Like” my official Facebook Fan Page to view daily workouts, tips and motivational advice. Feel free to email me any time this holiday season with any questions you may have regarding your personal fitness regimen.

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