Stress is impossible to avoid. We encounter it every day in a myriad of ways. The car won’t start, you can’t find your car keys, or you broke the zipper on your jacket. Heck, even the sound of the alarm clock telling you it’s time to get up places stress on your body! Stress is not only damaging mentally, but chronic exposure to stressful circumstances can increase the risk of chronic health problems. As Jay Winner, M.D., author of Take Stress Out of Your Life points out on WebMD.com, “Stress can worsen almost any health condition you can think of.” So, getting a handle on stress is not only important from a mental standpoint but from a physical one as well. Can exercise help?
Chronic vs. Acute Stress
It’s primarily chronic or long-term stress that takes its toll on our mental and physical health. Some studies suggest that certain types of short-term stress have a “hormetic” effect. Hormesis is the idea that low levels of stress cause your body to adapt in a positive way. In other words, stressful circumstances actually make your body more resilient to future stress.
An example is exercise. When you pick up a heavy weight and do 6 to 8 reps to near muscle failure or when you push yourself hard during a high-intensity interval session, it places stress on your body. But, it also causes your body to adapt to that stress and become stronger and more resistant to future challenges. In the first example, your muscle fibers increase in size and your neurological system adapts in such a way that you lift that weight more easily.
In the case of high-intensity interval training, your body adapts so that you can sustain vigorous exercise longer. In response to intense exercise, cells become more proficient at clearing lactic acid from the muscle and they recover faster. In fact, research shows that even one session of high-intensity training changes muscle cells at the molecular level that helps them tolerate hard-hitting exercise. This has been confirmed by muscle biopsy.
So, stress can be a good thing because it toughens up the bodily pathways that work together to help you handle it. The key is that the stress is short-term and controlled. For example, high-intensity workouts that are two hours in length would have a negative impact on your body due to its exhaustive nature.
Exercise and Stress Resistance
Some studies suggest that exercise gives people the ability to handle a variety of psychological stressors better. The bigger stressors in life, the death of a family member or pet, a big move, loss of a job, a major career change, loss of a home, take a considerable toll on an individual’s sense of well-being. But, according to a study published in Medicine Science Sports and Exercise, exercise helps reduce the psychological and physical aspects that such stressors take on our bodies.
When your body is under stress, a variety of physiological changes take place. Your heart rate increases, your blood pressure rises, and the tendency for your blood to clot is greater. That’s why the risk of heart attack or stroke goes up in response to stress. Stress also has a negative impact on the immune system. In response to a stressful circumstance, your adrenal glands release higher quantities of stress hormones, like epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol. Cortisol suppresses the immune system. That’s why people are more susceptible to colds and other infections during stressful periods.
If cortisol stays up, it has other negative effects. Cortisol contributes to bone loss and can cause redistribution of body fat from your hips and thighs to your tummy. It also has a catabolic effect on muscle tissue, leading to greater muscle loss. Longer term, excess cortisol raises the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Here’s the good news. The study showed that physically fit individuals display less of a rise in cortisol in response to stress. They also experience less anxiety and mental turmoil when faced with psychological stressors compared to unfit folks. Working up a sweat and challenging your body seems to mitigate the release of cortisol that occurs when you feel completely stressed out. In turn, this may reduce the negative physical effects that stress has on the body.
The Immediate Stress-Relieving Benefits of Exercise
Being physically fit may help mitigate stress’s undesirable impact, but it also helps you feel calmer in the short-term. Not only is an exercise session a respite, a chance to escape the situation that’s causing stress, but some studies also suggest that a sweat session produces natural chemicals that have a calming impact on the body. You’ve heard of the runner’s high, right? That’s the tranquil, almost euphoric, feeling runners get after they ‘ve jogged for 20 or more minutes. The chemicals that may be responsible for these feelings are caused by endorphins and they act on the same receptors in the brain that pain-relieving medications, like morphine, do.
Exercise also provides a way to shift the focus away from what’s bothering you. The chance to focus on your body and its movements rather than using your mind to run through stressful scenarios can be therapeutic. Even short-term, exercise can be just what the doctor ordered for stress.
Keep Your Workouts Balanced
If you’re experiencing an acutely stressful situation, you might benefit from shifting the balance of the exercise you do more toward mind-body exercise. While an invigorating high-intensity interval session can help clear your mind, a relaxing yoga session helps lower the stress response. Some studies show that yoga helps lower cortisol as well. It’s a good idea regardless of your stress level to include relaxational exercise in your workouts, especially if you do high-intensity workout. Doing so provides balance. Intense exercise has health benefits, but you also need more time to recover afterward. So, the day after a vigorous workout, why not include a yoga session the next day?
The Bottom Line
Exercise really does help you manage stress better – and now you know why.
WebMD.com. “10 Health Problems Related to Stress That You Can Fix”
Time Magazine. “Scientists Explain Why Interval Training Works”
Medicine Science Sports Exercise. 45: 379-386. (2013)
Anxiety and Depression Association of America. “Physical Activity Reduces Stress”
Harvard Health Publishing. “Exercising to Relax”