Stress-Proof Yourself

Martin Blacker, M.D.




Picture the following scenario: you’re crossing the street in a leisurely manner when suddenly you notice a very large bus coming toward you at 40 miles per hour. The driver shows no signs of slowing down or attempting to avoid you. Immediately, your brain sends a host of signals to various parts of your body.


First, your heart rate significantly increases. Your blood pressure (systolic and diastolic) shoots up. Your sweat glands open up, your skin blood vessels constrict and your skin blood temperature goes down. The endocrine system begins to pump cortisone into the blood stream. You are now prepared for instant fight or flight, with flight being the more appropriate response in this case. You rush to the curb to avoid the bus and stand there with your heart beating like mad and your palms sweating. You have just experienced the stress response.


In and of itself, the stress response is not bad. In fact, it is a built-in life-saving mechanism that prepares you to fight or flee from a threat. The complex combination of physiological events that take place when we perceive a threat is essential for the preservation of life. Given a real threat, stress is good. Problems occur when you exhibit the stress response to things that aren’t real threats, such as getting stuck in traffic, paying bills, misbehaving children and so on. If you regularly experience the stress response to these misperceived threats, you pay a price.


People who regularly experience the stress response have a very uniform set of responses called the “general adaptation response.” These changes include:


  • Sustained high blood pressure
  • Gastrointestinal ulcers
  • Enlargement of the adrenal glands
  • Atrophy of the thymus gland
  • Suppression of the immune system


Your body responds to the demands made upon it. When you increase the demands on a muscle, for example, it will grow larger. When you increase the demands on the endocrine system, it too will enlarge. These responses are a normal part of the stress response. However, when these systems are in constant demand, they become constant over-producers, which disrupts the normally function of bodily systems and creates health problems.


Cortisone (a byproduct of the stress response) suppresses the immune system, making the human body far more susceptible to a variety of life-threatening diseases. When you are constantly stressed, the body significantly increases the production of cortisone. Any way you look at it, prolonged stress is no good.


To avoid prolonged stress, the first step is to analyze it. Stress occurs along three axes:


  1. Environmental. These involve the things that happen to you in your environment: bills to pay, a business to run, etc.
  2. Somatogenic. These are the things you do to yourself: smoking, drinking, lack of exercise, etc.
  3. Psychogenic. This is the extent to which you “catastrophize” things. Or make them worse than they need to be.

By measuring the units of stress along each axis, you can construct a “stress vector,” which can help identify courses of action you can take to reduce stress.


Another step is to avoid stress. You can’t control everything in your environment, but you can control a great deal. Be aware of the things that upset you and take steps you can to avoid them. Another step is to minimize stress. One of the best ways to minimize stress is with aerobic exercise. You can abort the stress response with autogenic training, whereby you create a set of physiological responses that are the polar opposite of the stress response. You can dissipate stress once it occurs with aerobic exercise, meditation and other techniques.





Aerobic exercise is perhaps the best weapon against stress. To be considered aerobic, the exercise must raise the heart and respiratory rates for a long enough period of time to get your heart into a target zone and have a training effect. Examples of aerobic exercise include walking, swimming, biking, jogging, dancing, and so on.


One of the best forms of aerobic exercise is walking on a treadmill with an incline. It provides a tremendous aerobic benefit with very little impact on the body. All you need to do is walk at three miles per hour (a very moderate pace) at a minimum of an 8% incline. The higher the incline, the more calories you burn.


Some people can jog with no problems. But at least 40% of the population will develop knee or leg problems. If you can jog without injury, feel free to do it. But if your legs can’t stand the pounding, find another means of exercise. If you are over age 30 and you jog more than three miles at a time, the rate of injury increases significantly.


Swimming is a great way to stay in shape but not a good way to get in shape. Water aerobics is a good way to burn calories and is very safe because there is no impact. Step aerobics is another safe way to bum calories. Biking is good exercise but can be dangerous because of lack of respect from auto drivers. Machine aerobics (Stairmasters, etc.) are also good but can be boring.




To get the training effect, you have to raise your heart rate to the target level for your age group. To determine their target heart rate, men divide their age by two and subtract that total from 205. Then multiply that figure by 0.8. For example, a man age 50 would have a target heart rate of 144 beats per minute.

  • 50/2=25
  • 205—25 =180
  • 180×0.8144


For women, the formula is 220 minus age times 0.8. For example, a woman age 50 would have a target heart rate of 136.


  • 220—50=170
  • 170×0.8136


Don’t confuse aerobic exercise with resistance (muscle development) exercise. One kind of fitness doesn’t necessarily confer upon you the other kind of fitness. You need both.


It is very important to warm up for three to five minutes before doing any exercise that will strain your heart. It’s also important to cool down, particularly when doing heavy resistance exercise. Walk around for about five minutes until your heart rate comes down to a more normal level.


Aerobic fitness involves getting 30 “points” per week. Going one mile in less than 20 minutes earns one point. Going four miles in less than an hour and twenty minutes earns seven points because of the cumulative effect. The goal is four miles in an hour, four times a week. If you want to bum fat, walk daily.


Aerobic fitness provides many benefits:


  • Cardiovascular conditioning. When you are aerobically fit, your heart beats about 60 beats a minute, which is the most efficient rate. It has time for diastolic filling and ejects an adequate quantity of blood with each beat.
  • Increased longevity. Studies show that longevity is related to activity. Use your body if you don’t want to lose it.
  • Increased bone thickness. Aerobic exercise forestalls osteoporosis.
  • Reduced stress. Keeping aerobically fit reduces the amplitude of the stress response.
  • Ventilation effect. Aerobic exercise is the best way to get rid of stress. When you’re aerobically fit, you get rid of stress easier when it occurs. When you feel uptight, get out on the road and walk four miles.
  • Increased endorphin output. Endorphins are morphine-like substances that naturally occur in the body. Sustained muscular exercise produces a shower of endorphins, not just during the exercise but for a period of time afterwards.
  • Increased pain tolerance. People have the same pain thresholds (the level at which they feel pain) but different pain tolerances (the level at which they can’t stand it anymore). Aerobic exercise increases pain tolerance.
  • Enhanced disc nutrition. The discs in the vertebrae undergo degenerative changes with age.
  • Aerobic exercise slows that degenerative process.
  • Improved intellectual performance and productivity.
  • Enhanced delta sleep. This is the deep part of sleep when muscular-skeletal renewal takes place.
  • A matchless sense of well-being.
  • Enhanced drive and zest for life.
  • Fat loss on a cumulative basis. Running a marathon burns less than a pound of fat, but regular aerobic exercise is cumulative. If you walk four miles a day, you burn 400 calories a day. Over a period of a week, that’s one pound of fat. It’s what you do over the long haul that makes a difference.


The three most potent accelerators of the aging process are smoking, inactivity and obesity. All of these are choices. You can change your choice at any time you want.


Research shows that muscle retains its elasticity even into the latter years of life. Seniors can build muscle mass and strength with regular exercise. People who are falling down in retirement homes can regain strength and throw away their walkers with regular exercise. Current research shows that muscle mass and strength can be regained no matter the age or state of musculature.


When you lose muscle mass, you slow down your metabolic rate. You increase the percentage of body fat, even without increasing total weight. You get reduced blood sugar tolerance and loss of bone density. Inactivity makes you old. Inactive people hit the “disability zone” around age 65. You can delay that entry into your ‘8Os and ‘90s with an active lifestyle. You can even reverse the process, hut muscle tissue will not adapt unless you load it above a certain minimum point.


What keeps you healthy are the lifestyle choices you make, primarily nutrition and exercise. Inactivity and poor diet are two of the biggest (although slow) killers in American society.


To begin a program of muscle development exercise, first get a doctor’s clearance that maximum exertion won’t be life threatening. Then start out light. Do two sets of 18 to 20 reps per muscle group. Each set should take you to the point of moderate muscle fatigue. Allow a recovery time between sets of 90 to 150 seconds. Exhale on the heaviest part of the lift.

Stick with this routine for two weeks. By the third week, start to transition to a lower number of reps but with greater resistance. By the end of the month try to get to muscle failure at the end of each set of reps. Gradually increase the number of sets to three. As you continue to progress, introduce different exercises to challenge the muscle group.


After six to 10 weeks, vary the program using the principle of periodization. It is essential to vary your routine because in order to change, the muscles have to be continually challenged. Vary the routines in terms of load, speed of movement, type of exercise and the order of exercises performed. It is a lot easier to retain muscles mass than it is to acquire it. But even if you have lost muscle mass, you can get it back.




The autogenic state is a psycho-physiologic state in which brain-directed, self-normalizing functions are enhanced. Psycho-physiologic is the relationship between mindset and body response. All of our cells exist in a sea of fluid whose composition is maintained within exquisitely narrow limits. The brain monitors those limits and directs the body to take appropriate action whenever we do something that exceeds those limits. Stress tends to disturb that equilibrium, the autogenic state tends to restore it.


To engage in an autogenic exercise, get relaxed and comfortable in a chair. Softly and easily say to yourself “My arms and legs are heavy and warm. My heartbeat is calm and regular. My body breathes itself freely and easily. My abdomen is warm and my forehead is cool.” If you can link the utterance of these phrases with a state of passive concentration, you can evoke the autogenic state. Passive concentration means that you don’t try to force it, you simply let it happen.


In the stress response, your:


  • Heart rate goes up
  • Blood pressure goes up
  • Sweat gland activity goes up
  • Skin blood vessels constrict
  • Skin temperature goes down


The autogenic response creates the polar opposite response. Your:


  • Heart rate goes down
  • Blood pressure goes down
  • Sweat gland activity goes down
  • Skin blood vessels dilate
  • Skin temperature goes up


There is no mysticism about autogenics. Everyone has the ability to do these things with passive concentration.



Sleep has a number of definable physiological stages:


  • Stage 1 — Light sleep. Rapid eye movements (REM) and dreaming appear during this stage. People deprived of REM sleep become psychologically unstable. Most REM sleep occurs during the latter half of the night.
  • Stage 2 — Intermediate sleep.
  • Stage 3 — Deep sleep. This is the stage of delta sleep, when musculo-skeletal renewal takes places. Infants get almost all delta sleep because their bodies are growing so fast. As adults age, they need less delta sleep. Most delta sleep occurs during the first half of the night. People deprived of delta sleep often wake up with stiffness of the joints and soreness. They tend to run out of energy by two in the afternoon and have tender points in various muscles.


Tips for getting the best sleep:

  • Keep regular hours of going to sleep and getting up.
  • Don’t oversleep.
  • Don’t take daynaps.
  • Avoid too much warmth in the room.
  • Avoid sudden or intermittent loud noises.
  • Have regular aerobic exercise.
  • No caffeine after 1:00p.m. (caffeine is the single biggest destroyer of delta sleep)
  • Avoid more than two drinks of alcohol per night.
  • Avoid tobacco, narcotics and sleeping pills.


Research has shown that up to 250 milligrams of caffeine will increase your alertness and productivity. More than that and you may become more frenetic but not more productive. One cup of dripilated coffee (which most people drink) contains the fill daily allotment of caffeine. The same is true for most colas. The next time your dinner waiter asks, “Would you like coffee?” think of him as saying, “May I destroy your delta sleep this evening?” Instead, asked for brewed decaf


Once your sleep is disrupted, it can take weeks or even months to restore normal sleeping patterns. Building a “citadel of sleep” is a complex process. Don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t happen right away. If you continue to have sleeping problems, there are sleep clinics around the country that specialize in helping people with sleeping disorders. There are no hard and fast rules about how many hours you should sleep at night. The number of hours people need varies tremendously, NUTRITION


Metabolic rate is the rate at which you burn ingested food. It varies and is influenced by genetics and your body composition. It is also influenced by the kind of exercise you do. The more muscular you are, the more rapid your metabolic rate. The higher your body fat, the lower your metabolic rate. To control your weight and stay young, do plenty of resistance exercises.


Never go on a restricted calorie diet. When you restrict calories, your metabolic rate goes down. When you start eating normally again, your metabolic rate is low so your body starts storing food as fat. That’s why the dieting process tends to be such a roller coaster experience.


Every person has a “fat set point,” which is the tendency to convert ingested calories into fat. This tendency is also influenced by genetic background and body composition. The fatter you are, the lower your fat set point tends to be. The composition of the fat in the foods you eat and exercise also influences the fat set point.


The key to maintenance of optimal body weight and health is aerobic and resistance exercises. Spot reducing is a myth because there is no conduit between a deposit of fat and the muscles beneath it. You can’t work specific muscles in order to get rd of specific deposits of fat. Don’t believe any infomercials that say you can spot reduce fat.


The Brigham Young Center for Optimal Performance offers the following guidelines for optimal health:


  • Mildly restrict calories
  • Avoid foods that get more than 25% of their calories from fat. To determine how much fat is in a food, multiply the number of grams of fat times nine. That equals the total amount of calories from fat. Then divide that number by the calories per serving.
  • Beware of deceptive food labeling. The FDA says labeling can’t lie, but it doesn’t prevent food companies from deceptive labeling. Many labels say “low fat,” when the food is actually very high in fat. The percentage of fat by weight may be low, but the percentage of fat in calories is very high. Ignore the percentage of fat by weight and concentrate on the caloric percentage.
  • Don’t skip meals and then binge. It’s much better to eat several small meals than one large one. When you take in huge amounts of calories, a higher percentage will get stored as fat. You can’t burn it all because you overwhelm your metabolic machinery.
  • Eat wholesome foods like fruits and vegetables. Avoid fatty foods like cheese, cream, butter, nuts and alcohol. Alcohol is very calorie-intensive, but it is mostly empty calories. Most nuts are at least 60% fat. They don’t contain cholesterol but they’re still high in fat.
  • Avoid simple carbohydrates, especially sugar. Sugar is absorbed almost instantaneously and triggers a large output of insulin, which directs the calories into fat. Complex carbohydrates also absorbed as sugar, but it takes much longer to absorb them so you don’t get the insulin overdose.
  • Drink at least six glasses of water a day. Often when you think you’re hungry, you’re really thirsty.
  • Aerobic exercise for one consecutive hour each day. After the first half hour, your enzymes shift toward mobilizing fat.
  • Avoid artificial sweeteners because they increase the craving for simple carbohydrates. You don’t have to eliminate them from your diet, but keep them to a minimum.


Above all, think positive. Your moods, attitudes, beliefs and emotional states can and do influence your immune system. A growing body of literature relates the capability of the brain to the way the immune system responds. This literature shows a direct linkage between brain function and immune response. Your attitude, the presence or absence of stress and the way you respond to it profoundly influence the way you respond to disease.


You can choose your mood and physiological states simply by willing it to happen. When a mood falls upon you, don’t believe that you’re stuck with it. You are not a passive victim of mood. You can change it simply by making the choice to do so.




TEC – stress proof yourself – Martin Blacker