At the gym, with stress on our heels

Times Staff Writer

We all know exercise is supposed to reduce stress. So why does it often seem not to?

Consider this scenario: After a grueling day at the office, you battle bumper-to-bumper traffic to get to the gym, hunt for a parking space, then dash inside only to find your favorite elliptical trainer spoken for. It's enough to crush those endorphins before they get a chance to fly.

This situation plays out every day across Southern California, as health-conscious men and women face heightened anxiety just to get in a workout. Even the design of some gyms can produce stress. What club is without blaring pop music and a bank of television screens filled with images of war and violence?

Even yoga class, a favorite oasis amid the stress, doesn't always do the trick. "Occasionally we'll see people in class who are flustered; they throw their mat on the ground and make noise while we're in meditation," says Sue Elkind, co-owner of City Yoga in Los Angeles. "They really aren't present. I think they're still outside parking their car."

The idea of workouts as play time is being lost amid the time pressures and gadgets of today's world, says Petra Kolber, a local fitness instructor. "But society isn't allowing that anymore. If you're at the gym for an hour, you might not get an important phone call. You might be missing something. Nothing can wait anymore. Exercise is a great way to help reduce stress -- if you allow it."

Some of the newest cardio machines even allow people to check e-mail while they're working out. "Even in the health industry we're creating a place where you don't have to get away from it all," Kolber says. "Life is not going to get less stressful, so we need to start setting up boundaries."

The struggles of getting through the day are compounded by worrying about larger issues, such as war, terrorism, fear of job loss and the like. "It goes on and on," says Dr. Herbert Benson, a Harvard University professor and president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Chestnut Hill, Mass. "You have a mother juggling two or three worlds, and then you add the constant bombardment of cell phones and e-mail."

Consider the life of Mari Florence, a 39-year-old Los Angeles publisher who joined the Crescenta-Canada YMCA in La Canada in June after she had her baby, Katharine, now 8 months old. She tries to get to the gym a few days a week for a group cycling class, even though doing so often results in stressful mornings.

"Traffic can slow me down and parking can slow me down," says Florence, noting that it usually takes her 20 minutes to get to the gym. She tries to arrive 45 minutes early, giving her enough time to get her daughter settled in the infant child-care program. If child care is full, she misses her workout.

Before she became a mother, she says, workouts were more goal-oriented. "Now," she says, "it's about getting out of the house, getting to the destination and just working out with other like-minded people."

And after a few minutes on the bike, Florence says, her tension vanishes. "It's the best release," she says, "and I'm so much better for it."

When it comes to exercise, stress isn't always a bad thing. Athletes know that a little pregame stress can boost their energy and sharpen their focus. But Doug McKeag, director of the Indiana University Center for Sports Medicine, says stress can hinder athletes when it comes from multiple sources. "It works against the body and against one's performance."

Into every life stress must come, but it doesn't have to sabotage a workout. Benson recommends taking a few minutes each day to engage in some form of relaxation, which can have lasting effects throughout the day. "When you're dealing with stress, you have to back off and let the body re-equilibrate," he says. Instead of an hour pounding on the StairMaster, a yoga class might be a good alternative. Or, he suggests, engaging in repetitive movements such as walking, or repeating sounds or words can help.

Stay out of the fast lane, don't drive aggressively on the way to the gym, and take five minutes to unwind once you get there, says Dr. William Roberts, associate professor of family medicine at the University of Minnesota. It may be worthwhile to change workout times or even gyms, he adds, if crowds and noise are causing too much stress.

But the bottom line, he says, is that "exercise is one of the best relievers of stress. Whether you can get to the gym unstressed or not is not as important as getting there and doing the exercise."

When Kolber teaches cardio classes, she tries to restore a sense of inner calm in her students by asking them to close their eyes and concentrate on their breathing. In weight training she reminds them to concentrate on each repetition.

"I see people doing this mindless movement," Kolber says. "I also ask them to think about their intention. If you're not here with a focus, you're wasting your time."


Jeannine Stein can be reached at

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