In the US, we are obsessed with youth. Marketers’ dedication to it can’t help but make us think that something is wrong with getting old. In this series, I want to focus less on what US culture defines as “anti-aging,” and more into caring for ourselves, preparing and living our all-around best in our second half of life. Let’s stop focusing on our appearance and/or our life span, and consider how we can increase our health span.   

Increase your Health Span #3: Let’s Talk About Stress

Honestly, in America our culture almost glorifies stress— and I would argue that being “stressed out” is considered normal. But sadly, we also don’t have solid systems in place to support the physical, mental, emotional, and relational impacts of chronic stress. So stress is one of the biggest culprits to decreasing our health span, while simultaneously zapping our present quality of life. 

I experienced the stress of hustle culture to the point of feeling pretty much harried most of the time for many years. Looking back, I see that I defined a lot of my self worth by how busy I was, by who needed me, and by how much I had to do. Some of it was out of my control, some of it was due to my own choices. No matter the causes, I was stressed out. 

But, at the same time, I secretly had a lot of guilt about having stress. I surely didn’t talk about it. Even though it was wrecking havoc on my internal and external systems, I never wanted to admit that my daily schedule and overall lifestyle that had me stressed out. I knew I was making many choices to cultivate a more stressful lifestyle. I would also compare myself to others who had it way worse and decide that my stress was very trivial. I tried to ignore it, minimize it, and completely dismiss it. Instead, I dove in to toxic positivity and inauthenticity. And while it was true that I could have it way worse, I refused to give myself the same compassion and empathy that I could give to others surrounding stress. 

This changed when I started working with my very talented online acquaintance turned racing friend Dana—a smart, thoughtful, empathetic registered dietician. I sought out her assistance to check in with my daily fueling to be able to heal my gut and support my training better. Dana provided this guidance, and much more. Through the months of working together, Dana was able to identify a trend in my gut health— I carried a lot of stress, and it had a massive impact on my gut brain. She took a scientific, yet compassionate approach to helping me be honest with how stress was manifesting in my physical body. It was life changing for me. I finally was able to address my stress, share the impact of its burdens with others, ask for help, and find tools to actually alleviate it. By acknowledging it, it became real, and by owning it I began to heal—with Dana’s help, and then through many other practices that had always been at my fingertips. 

We all have our personal stories surrounding stress—I urge you to take some time to reflect on your own. How we look at it, identify it, manage it, and handle it will vary for each of us. And— it is important to mention that not all stress is “bad.” But, one thing is universal about an abundance of untreated stress— it takes years off your health span. 

How does stress contribute to decreasing our health span (and our life span too!)?

  • Stress shrinks the brain.
  • Stress ages the heart, resulting in high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and high blood sugar. Chronic stress causes a chronically elevated heart rate, which eventually wears it out. 
  • Stress weakens the bones. 
  • Stress makes you sick. 
  • Stress causes you to store belly fat— the most unhealthy place to store excess fat. 
  • Stress leads to diabetes by raising blood sugar, which can lead to insulin resistance. 
  • Stress is bad for the gut. This is where I feel the impact of stress in my body the most. Not only does stress cause more acid reflux and IBS flare ups, but clenching your body during the digestive process can impact the quality of digestion. 
  • Stress impacts your sleep. Stress hormones are designed to rev you up, not calm you down. 
  • Stress can cause disruptions in your sex life— from negatively impacting your libido, to erectile dysfunction. 

What can we do to intentionally decrease our body’s negative response to stress?

Slow down. I know it isn’t realistic to stop living your life, and for many of us that involves juggling a lot of responsibilities. Intentionally carve out some times in your day to ground yourself through prayer, meditation, and/or breathing practices. Start your day with a spiritual practice. Set alarms on your phone to remind you (and they have apps for this too!). Journal. And honestly reflect on ways you can say “no” more.

Be aware of your attitude. Acknowledge and feel your uncomfortable feelings. Give yourself space and time to feel, and when the acute sensation passes, redirect and focus on solutions over problems. Let go when possible. Add some encouraging mantras to your self-love toolbox.

Laugh. Laughter is good for longevity, gives our brain a boost, builds up the immune system, and is good for the heart and lungs— Dr. Sears call it “inner jogging.”  

Surround yourself with honest, uplifting people. And, as an added bonus, find those who make you laugh!

Move. Studies show that exercise is just as impactful on your mood as taking low dose antidepressants. 

Help others. The “helper’s high” is real. When you give your time and energy to others your brain releases a surge of feel-good hormones like dopamine. 

Tried and true ways to combat stress: go outside, sleep, listen to music, and therapy. 

Eat happy foods

For those of you who are endurance athletes, I think it is important to acknowledge that training is stress on our bodies. We need to support our training well, especially when we have a lot of stress in other areas of life. We need sleep, a focus on quality and quantity of foods, lots of water, and a solid practice to combat mental and emotional stress (that likely does not include movement). Part of the trap I fell into was assuming that my movement was “taking care of” my stress relief, and then ignoring the other cues and needs throughout the day. 

If training takes so much out of you that it is not only not stress relief, but it is more negatively contributing to your life than positively, then I suggest you do some honest selection to explore where changes can be made. 

For everyone, I urge you to stop accepting chronic loads of stress as a normal part of life. Find some tools to help your body, mind, and soul lower it to increase your quality of life now, and quantity of healthy years to come. 

Breathe. Go outside. Move. Laugh. Pray. Help others. Sounds like a perfect prescription to me.