Self Caring

A 13-Minute Stress Solution?

Last updated: Jun 02, 2010

Image by Maria Keays used under the creative commons attribution license.

"I'm sick-sick-sick of being told to "˜take care of yourself,'" a caregiver friend said, rolling her eyes when she heard I write a blog for caregivers called Self Caring.

Caregiver self-care is the ultimate conundrum: You know what you need to do but you just can't. Lack of time? Of opportunity? Often, I think, caregivers simply get too burned out even to see the motivation, any more.

Makes me think of two old sayings: "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." But also: "The first step is a doozy."

So I get it. I get that an evening of anxiously-munched corn chips now settled like so many small anvils in your belly can anchor you to the sofa and cancel any possible impulse connected with your own well being. (How much do I get it? My dinner a few nights ago consisted of...corn chips!)

And yet in the interest of lighting a flicker of motivation, I can't help telling you about a pretty amazing new study. It was done on post-menopausal women, most of whom were caring for spouses or parents with dementia. University of California - San Francisco researchers monitored the women's stress levels (you can imagine!) and their levels of daily exercise. They also took blood samples to measure the telomere length of their immune cells. Telomeres are a biological marker for the accumulated wear-and-tear of aging that comes from both genetic and environmental (everyday life conditions, including stress and exercise) influences. The longer those telomeres, the better.

To even the researchers' surprise, brief intense exercise offset the destructive, aging influence of stress on the women's cells! How brief? Just 13 minutes a day!

The women who were in super-stress mode but who exercised (just enough to raise a sweat) had longer telomere lengths than those who were sedentary, regardless of whether in super-stress mode or lower-stress mode.

Somehow this kind of wow-fact sticks in my head even on those days when I'd rather hibernate with a corn chip bag.

So here's the pep talk:

  • Stress can kill you -- but it seems that exercise can blunt the way stress ages your very cells. Exercise! Something cheap and, if not easy, at least not super hard, either.

  • Starting an exercise program is dreadful for everyone, so if you feel like crap at first, you're not a loser, you're in good company! (Eventually regular movement really does make you feel great, although for some of us -- me -- it requires major psyching up every day to get going!)

  • Little bitty movements are better than none. My 90something great aunt used to tell me she'd make four trips from the kitchen to the living room to put things away, rather than one, just to get the extra movement.

  • You're never too old or creaky to start moving. (See my aunt, above.)

  • You don't have to leave the house or join a gym to sweat. (See my aunt, above.)

  • Bottom-line motivation: Caregiving requires sacrifice, but nobody said it should be the ultimate sacrifice. If you're not around, what will happen to the person in your care?

I know, I know -- that sounds a lot like, "Take care of yourself." Boring. Cliched. Easier-said-than-done. Yadda, yadda. So how about, "Take care of yourself...for at least 13 minutes a day"?