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Exercise and Stress – Q&A with Amy Dempsey, Physician Assistant

May 07, 2020

Woman doing yoga to relieve stress at home

Written by Kelly Ellis, author for Maddyn


If you didn’t know before the world shifted into this “new normal”, you certainly know by now that exercise is one of the most important parts of your daily wellness routine. From free streaming at-home workouts to endless articles about why you must keep exercising right now, there’s no shortage of information out there about how important it is. But for many, working out is not as simple as moving your routine from the gym to home -  and that’s because of stress.   


With life continuing in quarantine for some (like myself in Chicago), and businesses slowly starting to open with new social distancing rules for others (like my family in Atlanta), many are dealing with higher levels of stress and uncertainty than ever before. And, stress can create a “trickle-down” effect that causes us to eat more unhealthy foods, get less quality sleep, and lack the energy and motivation to workout. So, how can we prioritize daily exercise while at home when we are struggling to manage this?


I talked with my friend Amy Dempsey, a Physician Assistant on the front lines of Chicago today and the mom of three school-age girls (via Zoom chat, of course!), to learn more about how stress and exercise are inextricably linked (along with diet, too), and how those of us dealing with more stress than usual can commit to working out.

Exercise has always been an important part of our wellness routines, but it’s difficult for many to focus on working out with all of the distractions and new stresses. How can people realistically prioritize daily exercise right now?
I think taking it a day at a time is how we can get through this. Everyone knows exercise is beneficial and if we can set aside even 15 minutes a day to start, every little bit is helpful.  Once you get over the initial hump of making the time to exercise, soon it will become routine. The motivation will come with the knowledge that it will help with stress and sleep.
We hear a lot about how exercise produces endorphins. Can you talk more about this, and how this is beneficial to people in times of stress?
Endorphins are neurotransmitters in the brain that activate the body’s opioid receptors. Their release causes an analgesic effect. Endorphins are structurally similar to the drug Morphine. The more endorphins that are circulating, the less one feels pain and the effects of stress.
Are there certain types of exercise that are better at helping the stress response than others?
Any type of exercise that gets your heart rate elevated is beneficial. This includes brisk walking, running, and aerobic activity. Increased heart rate during exercise provides extensive oxygen blood flow to the brain. Reducing one’s stress response can also be done with activity that promotes meditation and concentration such as yoga or Pilates. These types of exercises can raise heart rate and blood flow, but they also distract the mind by forcing one to focus on rhythm and balance.
What can parents who have now added e-learning responsibilities to their daily schedule do to stay on track with exercise?
As a parent of three girls in 1st, 3rd, and 6th grade, I can completely understand the daunting feeling of trying to fit exercise into the mix. Again, I go back to “one day at a time”. Try to set aside a specific time during your day that is just for you, even if it starts as 10-15 minutes. The other consideration is to incorporate your children into the exercise. You can make that their physical education requirement for the day!
We also hear that exercise during the day can help us sleep at night. How does this work?
Some theories suggest that it has to do with our body’s temperature increase while exercising and the slow decline of the temperature back to normal. Other likely contributing factors have to do with exercise’s effect on our endocrine system. It affects both our blood glucose levels and increases daytime release of growth hormone levels, which has a positive correlation with deep sleep. These effects on our sleep become more and more apparent as exercise becomes habitual. Lastly, we know for sure that physical activity which increases heart rate helps decrease the time it takes to fall asleep and increases the time we spend in quality deep sleep. Quality sleep is better than quantity. This helps boost immune function and allows our brain the rest it needs to be able to deal with the stressors of the following day.
Of course, it’s important for people to be safe and reduce the chances of strain or injury while working out. What advice do you have for people who are adapting to a new type of workout when it comes to this? 
Slow and steady wins the race, so gradual increase is the way to go.  Avoid overdoing whatever physical activity it is you are choosing to do. Always stretch before and after, no matter how long the workout. Most importantly, listen to your body. If something hurts, stop doing it.
At Maddyn, we talk a lot about the connection between diet, exercise, and sleep, and how balancing the three together is the key to a healthy lifestyle. Can you speak more to how these are interconnected?
All three of these lifestyle aspects affect one another in a domino effect. Your diet gives your body the fuel it needs to function. Your body and brain need the proper food to work at its fullest capacity. It’s no different than putting low versus high-quality gasoline in a car. The exercise you choose to do gets your body in peak position to combat daily stress, anxiety, and preparation for quality sleep. Quality sleep helps our brain rest and recover from the day’s stressors and be ready to start fresh the following day.
So many of us feel a tremendous sense of pressure to do a million things every day, which of course causes additional stress. What advice do you have for people to escape this mindset and reset their priorities?
I think having the confidence and knowledge that doing even a small amount of exercise can potentially have an exponentially positive effect on our stress levels would be motivation to begin making a change. Again, taking it a day at a time and knowing that the first handful of times, you may need to force yourself to do it. The good news is that the feelings of wellbeing associated with exercise become cumulative with consistent activity. It will get to a point where it won’t feel like such a hassle to exercise. 
You are a working mom of three young, school-age girls. What personal advice can you give our readers about balancing it all while also making sure you stay fit and healthy? 
It is truly is hard no matter what one’s situation is. I think setting realistic goals is key. I wouldn’t set a goal to work out 30 minutes a day, 7 days a week to start. It’s all about “baby steps” and gradually working into it to prevent injury and avoiding feelings of failure. Don’t be hard on yourself if you miss out on a day. This doesn’t negate the progress you have already made. Praise yourself for the physical activity you are able to complete, no matter how big or small. 
When all else fails, know that there are other ways to release endorphins as well: laughing, massage, sex, chocolate, and wine. Yes, wine and chocolate releases endorphins, but only when consumed in moderation of course!


Now that you have a better understanding of how exercise and stress are intertwined – along with diet – you can start looking at your daily workouts as a way to help manage your stress. And, if you are feeling a bit overwhelmed by all of the new at-home workouts out there today, here are some helpful tips for staying fit while staying at home that have been helping me through my quarantine here in Chicago. (These tips, and of course, chocolate and wine in moderation!)




Need a little help recovering after working out? Maddyn’s topical cream is made with broad spectrum hemp extract CBD and other natural ingredients for faster muscle recovery. Plus, it is made with lavender and eucalyptus oil so it smells great!


About Amy Dempsey, P.A.

Amy Dempsey, Chicago-based Physician Assistant

Physician Assistant Amy Dempsey earned her professional degree from Midwestern University in 2002 and a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology from University of Illinois. She has been working in both Obstetric/Gynecology and Emergency Medicine for the past 15 and 17 years respectively and has experience in Cosmetic Surgery and Family Practice. Amy is dedicated to providing the highest quality of care for all patients.




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