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Holiday season a good time to focus on the health of mind, body and spirit

Exercise touted as a great way to shed the holiday pounds, but it is also good for reducing anxiety, stress and depression
Personal Trainer Kevin Kephart of Durango works out at the Durango Fitness Club. He credits regular exercise for helping him to get through hard times and maintain his overall sense of well-being. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

While the hope for the holidays is fun with family, decadent dinners and good tidings to all – the season can also ring in a time of anxiety, stress, extra pounds and depression.

And while the extra pounds seem to garner the most attention as New Year’s resolutions are made and local gyms surge with new members, what is often overlooked is the positive affect that exercise and movement have on reducing anxiety and stress – and helping to root out depression.

Personal trainer Kevin Kephart of Durango credits regular exercise for helping him to get through rough times as well as maintain his overall sense of well-being.

Kephart was 16 when his 19-year-old sister died in a car accident. A year later his stepdad, who served in Desert Storm, committed suicide. A year after that his biological father died, followed a few months later by his grandfather.

“And all those people were pretty close to me,” he said. “And people will relate PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) to warfare or being a veteran, but the reality is it’s not just warfare, it can come from traumatizing events like that. I think I have some form of that and it’s given me anxiety and depression. But a habit that I started at a young age was weightlifting and exercise, and it’s always been something to bring me back from times of depression.”

When Kevin Kephart squared off with PTSD symptoms at an early age, he turned to fitness to balance body, mind and spirit. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Making a habit of exercising, cardio combined with some resistance training, is ideal Kephart said, and just like bad habits, good habits become ingrained.

“It produces endorphins and you get an increase in those good hormones,” he said. “And it’s just a proven scientific fact that exercise and resistance training improves depression and anxiety. And on a personal level, I strongly believe exercise has kept me alive. Exercise and speaking to a doctor about depression.”

Kephart encourages people to be intentional when they work out and not to just go through the motions.

“Resistance training is very mindful, it’s like a meditation for me,” he said. “I like how Arnold Schwarzenegger puts it. When you’re lifting, your mind is in the muscle. You’re focusing on that muscle and not thinking about anything else. You’re meditating on that muscle and kind of visualizing the contraction.”

Melissa Knight-Maloney, a professor in the Health and Human Performance Department at Fort Lewis College, said exercise absolutely helps with anxiety, stress and depression.

“We have a lot of evidence that exercise helps improve self-esteem and self-efficacy and things like that,” she said. “When muscles contract, there are a lot of things released that travel through your body. The technical term is myokines, and they have a lot of different effects. So when we look at things like mood, cognitive function and memory, we see a lot of positive effects from exercise.”

Kephart suggests finding a balance between resistance training and cardio workouts. Every individual is different in their needs and abilities so finding the right exercises is crucial. And just like bad habits, staying the course with regular workouts of some sort, will form a good habit that will spill over into other parts of life. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

In the short term, exercise creates “oxidative stress and inflammation” but in the long term it actually decreases chronic inflammation.

“And there is an association with chronic inflammation and things like depression, stress and anxiety,” she said.

Exercise also decreases the release of stress hormones, Knight-Maloney said, and when stress hormones are high, a lot of our neurotransmitters that make us feel good like serotonin and norepinephrine can be decreased.

“So chronic stress can disrupt communication of some of the neurotransmitters in our brain,” she said. “Current research also shows that increased circulation from exercise affects endocannabinoids in the brain, which gives off a similar affect to getting high. So the runner’s high might really be a high.”

The American College of Sports Medicine advises 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise every week, Knight-Maloney said. “Which works out to somewhere around 20 to 30 minutes three or four times a week.”

Knight-Maloney passed the proverbial baton when asked if yoga offered the same benefits as the types of exercise mentioned by her and Kephart.

“Let’s just say that yoga is a different form of exercise,” she said. “But any time you get a repetitive contraction of your muscle, you get the benefits I’ve mentioned. And that’s the biggest thing that we have a hard time describing to people is the whole thing with individuality. One of the most frustrating things when we try to look at fitness and what’s going on is that everybody responds to different stimuli differently.”

Kephart emphasized that fact as well, noting that having a personal trainer is good for exactly that reason, because while something like Cross Fit might be great for one person, it can be all wrong for another.

Cat Morrison owns the Sweaty Buddha Hot Yoga Studio where she still teaches on occasion. She is also the nurse at Miller Middle School.

“There’s a direct link between the practice of yoga and our nervous system,” she said. “The different poses, which we call asanas, affect the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The parasympathetic is rest and digest and the sympathetic is like our fight or flight. So there is a balance in our body between those two nervous systems. So oftentimes as a nurse, I guide people to relieve anxiety and stress by doing some of those poses.”

People who practice hot yoga often mention getting the same effect as a runner’s high, where you are working hard but also feeling a release of stress and anxiety. And while they get people in the door because hot yoga creates fit bodies, there really is more to it, Morrison said.

“Truly, so much of yoga is the mental and spiritual piece,” she said. “But for sure, the practice is science based. It is improving your nervous system.”

Doing yoga regularly is really about being in the present, being in your body in the moment, not thinking about the past or the future, Morrison said. The goal is to stay in the present.

“It’s when we practice mindfulness and presence that we can truly experience the joy of being in our bodies and being alive,” she said. “And this takes you out of that place of anxiety and depression.

“The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said ‘if you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future,’” she said.

gjaros@durangoherald.com



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