Provision #521: Make Stress Count

Laser Provision

There was a time when stress really counted: it meant our life was at risk. Today, in our computer-driven, 24-7 world, stress has become a constant companion. Even when there is no clear and present danger, people have plenty to worry about. What’s a person to do? One strategy is to stress-proof your life by strength-training your muscles. Read on to learn of the connection between physical and mental fitness and to pick up some simple tips for making it so.

LifeTrek Provision

A few months ago I had the opportunity to speak to the annual meeting of the Virginia Society of Certified Public Accountants. My topic, “Stress Proof Your Life,” is one that I have worked with and developed over the past several years. From a one-hour breakout session to a two-hour keynote to a full-day workshop, “Stress Proof Your Life” is both relevant and interesting for just about any group or occasion.

That’s because stress is such a pervasive part of modern life. We do it to ourselves • just look at me with Provisions • and we do it to each other in every imaginable system and situation. From families to corporations to churches to schools, people are stressed out beyond measure. Witness the record levels of stress-related illnesses (e.g., high blood pressure, asthma, and autoimmune disorders) and dysfunctions (e.g., depression, anxiety, and violence) if you have any doubt.

The process of stress-proofing is not designed to eliminate stress from life, as if that were either possible or desirable. Rather, the process of stress-proofing (which takes its name from the process of rust-proofing automobiles) is designed to mitigate the toll stress takes on life. We do that by getting ourselves into the sweet spot where life is interesting but not overwhelming. Stress-proofing enables individuals and organizations to find that spot and to then to stay it for longer periods of time. Just like cars, people last longer and do better when we get the stress right.

There was a time, not long ago in evolutionary terms, when stress was not such a chronic condition. It was more situational and episodic: when threatened with a clear and present danger, people and organisms experienced stress. Once the danger had passed, the stress went away. Darwin wrote about this 135 years ago in his book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Emotions such as anger and fear were born in the crucible of stress, leading to the fight, flight, or freeze response without much cognitive deliberation. We did what we had to do in the service of staying alive.

That’s the way stress is supposed to work: it is a temporary condition, marked metabolically by the rapid production of adrenaline and cortisol, that calms down in relatively short order. It is not supposed to be our standard mode of operation, as evidenced by the chronic diseases of civilization. Adrenaline junkies may be wired for fun, or just plain wired, but they also tend to suffer the consequences. Not only do they put their physical health at risk, they risk their psychological, social, and spiritual health as well.

Unfortunately, that has become the rule more than the exception in the modern world. Think of it as an unintended consequence of carbon-based life forms (human beings) living in a 24-7 world increasingly dominated by silicon-based life forms (computers). There’s no way for us to keep up.

Stress-proofing involves adjusting our goals, routines, relationships, and environments accordingly. That’s what I work through with stressed-out people, both in group settings and in one-on-one coaching. Since the computers won’t pull the plug for us, both literally and figuratively, we have to pull that plug for ourselves. We can’t eliminate stress, but we can make stress count for good.

One way to do that, ironically enough, is through strength training. That was, after all, what people did with stress in the “good ole days” • we used our muscles, together with our brains, to stay alive. Fight and flight both take strength, as well as cunning, in order to meet the challenge. In the process we dissipate all that adrenaline and cortisol from our system. Using our muscles is not only the antidote for overweight bodies; it’s also the antidote for overactive minds.

We’ve written before about the importance of a wide variety of aerobic exercise: 30-minutes per day is the bare minimum both for fitness and for stress-proofing. In addition, we would do well to incorporate regular bouts of strength training, whether in real life (I recently carried a plant with a root ball from the front to the back yard that was heavy enough to require several stops along the way) or in the gym.

That’s especially true after the age of 30, since from that point on the body tends to lose lean muscle mass at the rate of about a pound a year. Why aren’t people losing weight? Because most of us tend to replace the muscle mass with fat (and then some). The only way to slow it down or even, for a time, to reverse it is through strength training.

Real-life strength training is in many ways the best, since it can often give us both a complete workout and a real sense of satisfaction. When I finally got through with my plant move, I may have been sweaty, dirty, and tired, but I had also gotten something done. What more could you ask from a workout! If the project involves pushing, pulling, lifting, lowering, jumping, bending, reaching, or otherwise using your body to move stuff in the physical world, then you’ve taken on a strength training project with real-life benefits. Instead of complaining about or avoiding such projects with labor-saving devices, such as garage-door openers, you may want to take them on as part of your fitness routine.

When that’s not possible or desirable, a well-equipped gym is the next best alternative. The machines are designed to strengthen the arm, core, and leg muscles through a wide variety of exercises. But we hardly need machines to get a good work out. Pushups, chair dips, sit ups, trunk lifts, knee bends, leg lifts, and stair climbing, for example, can be done just about anywhere with positive results. Do them at least three times per week.

Check with your doctor, of course, to determine your physical limitations, if any, when it comes to strength training. In my case, the doctor has recommended less weight and more repetitions rather than more weight and less repetitions. That fits well with the super-slow method advocated by Ellington Darden, who was director of research for Nautilus Sports / Medical Industries for seventeen years.

Darden recommends lifting less weight more slowly in order to develop your muscles more quickly. His research, along with that of Ken Hutchins, has identified a 15-second pattern, divided 10:5 between the initial push or pull and the subsequent release, as the optimal strength-building pattern. Lifting slowly means lifting less weight, but experience has shown that super-slow = super-fast when it comes to building muscle mass.

Coaching Inquires: What’s your pattern when it comes to strength training? Do you do it on a regular basis? On a scale of 0-10, how would you rate your stress level? What steps could you take to stress-proof your life? What would it take to add exercise to your bag of tricks?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form on the Web for a complimentary coaching session.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob..

Interestingly enough, I live in Boulder, Colorado and we have one of the few Chautauquas left in the country, from the days of the Chautauqua movement, and I attend regularly, mostly for music (Colorado Music Festival) but often for general events, concerts and lectures. Additionally, I attend Unity and we often have Marshal Rosenberg of NVC fame as guest speaker and lecturer. Your Provision brought two parts of my life together. Thanks!

Thank you for once again sending out just the information I was looking for. Yesterday I said to my colleague here in Seoul, Korea how frustrated I felt not knowing where I could learn more about communication. I work on cross culture and communication, so I am the ‘subject expert’ but I feel there’s so much more to be learned. The descriptions in NVC accurately describe what we seek through cross cultural communication. Thank you for this timely connection. 

Reading your words on your visit to Chautauqua rang so true. It took me back to the incredible summer of 1974 I spent there. I am so thrilled to hear it is still that magical place. Long before I knew that I would my life would take me to health and fitness, as a personal trainer and wellness coach, I studied music at Boston University’s School of Music. As a young college student I was set on becoming a concert pianist. One summer, I went to Chautauqua to live and study music with an incredible, master teacher, Ozan Marsh.

At Chautauqua, I had the time, peace, and tranquility to dig deep into my soul and pay attention to my true feelings, whereby I discovered that as much as I loved music, it was not my calling. I lived completely alone in a small room, top floor of one of the very old boarding houses and discovered that it was wonderful to be alone without being lonely. There was something about the kindness of the whole place, an environment to think, to feel, and to simply be without judgment or competition. My transformation began there.

Today, I am 52 years old, married with two grown boys and every summer I say to my husband, some time I need to take you to the Chautauqua Institution to see what I mean, to feel the tranquility, the peace and the pace of life. After reading your article, I just felt so relieved to hear it still has that magic, that Chautauqua kept its identity and did not succumb to progress of the times now. 

After leaving there that summer, I returned to Boston University, completed my second year as a music major, but then took a year off from college to search for a new path in my life. My parents thought, at the time, that I was sad about all this – that I had abandoned my life’s dream, but to me it was an awakening, a joy and a relief. I had found the courage and strength to say this is not me, I need to change and believe that there was something else that would fulfill my life more than music. Music was something I held onto thinking and feeling it defined me – it did not. There was something in me that wanted to get out.

I know you talk so much about health, fitness, and weight management. At 19 years old I weighed 140 pounds. I sat at the piano for 4-6 hours a day practicing and with every wrong note or frustrating moment of imperfection, I would eat something. It was not me. I continued in the arts, but transferred to NYU. In 1978 I graduated with a BFA in Dance at 115 lbs, and then went on to my get my Master’s degree in Adult Fitness, also at NYU. Now, some thirty odd years later, I am the physical happy person that was screaming to get out as a teenager. I am a healthy 107 lbs and loving every minute. You can see before and after pictures at on my website.

Thank you for bringing the Chautauqua Institution back to life for me. Now, perhaps one day I will make the trip to visit it again. There are times in life that we know we cannot go back to and expect it to be the same. When it comes to Chautauqua, perhaps we can. Feel free to share this story with your readers and those thinking of visiting Chautauqua. If young people still have the opportunity to spend summer weeks there, I highly recommend it.

(Ed. Note: Your story reminds me of the joke • “How many Chautauquans does it take to change a light bulb?” “Change?” It is still the same, wonderful place that it was in 1974. I hope you can make it back.) 

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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