Feeling Stressed? Don’t Sit Down

September 22, 2015

5:00 pm

Earlier in the week, I watched sympathetically as a fellow company founder withered under a pretty stressful situation. He sat at a long table, pounding the keyboard, and talking frantically into his headset. After about an hour of simmering tension, he stood up, loudly closed his laptop, and walked over to collapse on a nearby couch.

The instinct to just melt into a couch or slump down into a chair following a stressful situation is a strong one. Scientific and medical research, however, suggests you probably would be better off avoiding the couch and going for a walk.

Dragging You Down

Stress can be a serious drag on your mood, productivity, and even your health. Perhaps you’ve noticed that when you are stressed, you’re more likely to forget your car keys or neglect to respond to an important email. Stress actually can cause diminished brain capacity, particularly in the hippocampus region of the brain that is responsible for significant cognitive functioning. Research also has shown that slouching over in your chair can send “sad signals” to your brain. This result may be due to the fact that your body is more likely to produce stress hormones when sitting.

Inefficiency You Really Don’t Want

Researchers also speculate that the more sedentary we become, the worse our bodies become at responding to stress. The American Psychological Association explains this thinking:

Biologically, exercise seems to give the body a chance to practice dealing with stress. It forces the body’s physiological systems — all of which are involved in the stress response — to communicate much more closely than usual . . . This workout of the body’s communication system may be the true value of exercise; the more sedentary we get, the less efficient our bodies in responding to stress.

The last thing most of us need is for our bodies to become worse at dealing with stress.

Get Active to Fight Back

While we might not be able to live stress-free, we can try to reduce and minimize the negative effects from it. When you engage in physical activity, your body produces neurohormones, which can counteract that diminished brain capacity. Neurohormones can help to improve cognitive functioning and mood. Even going for a brisk walk can help your body to pump out endorphins that can reduce stress and depression. Walking outside has been found to be particularly powerful for reducing stress-related feelings.

Just being on your feet also can make a big difference. Standing tall with your shoulders back and head up is a “power pose” that is, well, empowering. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy has a well-known TEDTalk that explains how standing in a power pose with elbows slightly out, chin lifted, and shoulders back for just two minutes can generate a 20% increase in testosterone and a 25% decrease in the stress hormone cortisol.

The next time that you are faced with a stressful situation – which, if you’re an entrepreneur, might be about every 15 minutes! – try to fight back against the instinct to slump in your chair or collapse on the couch. Pace around your office, stand up and roll those shoulders back, or even take a lap around the block. Feel the blood pumping through your body, your energy level rising, and your sense of optimism returning. When you deal with stress effectively during the day, you can make plopping down on the couch in the evening truly relaxing.

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Kathleen Hale is an experienced entrepreneur and public speaking coach. She is the co-founder and the CEO of Rebel Desk, a company that designs and sells standing and treadmill desks to help people be more active while they work. Kathleen also is the creator of Chair Free Project, a resource to help people move more and use chairs less. She writes, speaks and educates others about the many benefits of pushing your chair aside and living more actively. In addition to spreading the "chair free" message, Kathleen uses her background as a speaker, trial attorney and performer to coach other entrepreneurs on public speaking and pitch presentations.

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