Living

Feeling stressed or fatigued? Do something active

Exercise can be more relaxing than trying to 'switch off'

When she is stressed and overworked, my wife sometimes turns to a relaxation CD for help.

It features a soothing voice which gives gentle guidance on letting go of tension and entering a calm state of mind.

It also has soft music.

She finds it helpful.

Whenever I get stressed and overworked, she is sure to recommend it to me.

But I find it unhelpful.

It makes me concentrate too much on relaxing.

And the more I concentrate, the less relaxed I feel.

Many of the things that people turn to help them manage stress - hot baths, scented candles, sounds-of-nature CDs, mindfulness apps - do not work well for me either.

I find that the most effective way to relax is to do something.

Not something passive like watching TV or reading a book, but something active.

The more active, the better.

Many years ago, I read Dale Carnegie's self-help book, How To Enjoy Your Life And Your Job.

The book contains many anecdotes, and one of them has stuck in my mind.

It is about a young woman named Alice, "a corporate employee who lives on your street".

Carnegie tells how Alice came home from work one evening, utterly exhausted.

Her head ached, her back ached, and all she wanted to do was sleep.

Then: "The telephone rang. The boyfriend! An invitation to a dance!

"Her eyes sparkled. Her spirits soared. She rushed upstairs, put on her Alice-blue gown, and danced until three o'clock in the morning; and when she finally did get home, she was not the slightest bit exhausted."?

When you are tired and stressed, you tend to brood about the things that are tiring and stressing you out. And the more you brood about them, the more important they seem.

And the more important they seem, the more tired and stressed they make you. It is a vicious circle.

I have always remembered that story because it chimes so well with my own experience.

When I was younger, I played in a squash league.

Many a time I got home from work feeling tired and stressed, wanting nothing more than to slump down in an armchair, but had to drive out to the squash club to play a match.

FELT GREAT

And every time, within 10 minutes of pounding around the court, chasing a tiny rubber ball as though my life depended upon it, I felt great.

Alas, my squash-playing days are over.

But I still get the same kind of buzz from rope-skipping.

When I am stressed and tired, when I am overworked and underperforming, and when my confidence and enthusiasm levels are low, I take my skipping rope outside and, within half an hour, transform my mental state.

I return refreshed, reinvigorated and re-enthused.

For me, it works like magic.

And I have often wondered why.

What is it about these types of exercise that makes them so mood-enhancing?

Science has some of the answers. Aerobic exercise - so I read - stimulates the production of endorphins, which are mood-elevating, pain-killing chemicals in the brain.

These endorphins are thought to play a role in producing the rush that some people get from vigorous exercise.

This sounds very plausible to me, since the euphoric feeling I get while skipping really does feel like some kind of drug-induced high.

But I think that there is also another factor at work.

When you are tired and stressed, you tend to brood about the things that are tiring and stressing you out. And the more you brood about them, the more important they seem.

And the more important they seem, the more tired and stressed they make you.

It is a vicious circle.

Chasing a ball around a squash court, or performing tricks with a skipping rope, or, like Alice, dancing the night away with your boyfriend, breaks that cycle.

Vigorous exercise may not work for everyone.

It may not work for you.

But if aromatherapy oils and relaxing music are not helping you, it is definitely worth a try.

•Gary Hayden is a philosophy and science writer.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 17, 2015, with the headline 'Feeling stressed or fatigued? Do something active'. Print Edition | Subscribe