How Exercise Improves Stress Management

Stress is an unavoidable part of human life. In small doses, stress is a GOOD thing because it enables us to recognize and overcome both physical and psychological threats to our well-being.  Acute (immediate and short-term) stress prepares the body for more challenging tasks.  Once the body encounters a stressor, overcomes it, and then returns to a normal rested state, it is better prepared and capable of handling a new stressor of potentially greater intensity. This is how we adapt and build resiliency for increased stress in the future.

Chronic (long-term) stress, however, is not a good thing. If the body does not have time to recover and is constantly bombarded by stressful stimuli, whether real or imagined, health declines. Chronic stress is associated with up to 90% of all doctor visits. Its affects are wide-ranging and can contribute to common chronic conditions such as obesity, cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, digestive issues, hormone imbalances, and mental decline. Cell damage, premature aging??

The immediate impact of stress on the body is a net surge of a variety of hormones, primarily adrenaline and cortisol. This results in an increase in heart rate and breathing rate, an increase in blood pressure, and the release of sugars into the bloodstream to mobilize energy sources.

During periods of acute stress, this “call to arms” of resources is necessary to deal with the insult at hand.  This heightened state of arousal in the body is also known as the “fight or flight” response. But, if the body remains in “fight or flight” long-term, the negative effects of chronic stress begin to take their toll on the body.

The “fight or flight” response is an intrinsic, primal reaction to danger which tells us to MOVE. That response to stress is still very much a part of us.  However, in our modern world, physical stressors are no longer the primary source of stress.  Instead, we live in a sedentary society where people move less and are bombarded with psychological stressors.

When psychological stress festers without a proactive solution, a feeling of helplessness and anxiety can be perpetuated. Without a positive outlet like exercise to relieve the stress, pent-up stress often manifests negatively via emotional outbursts. Exercise, as well as emotional stressors, both induce the “fight or flight” response. Consequently, substituting a positive stressor like exercise when you feel negative psychological stress creeping in, can help re-wire your brain not to over-reactive to other stressors in the future.

Exercise increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain. This not only gives brain cells and neurons the energy they need to perform, but it also acts like a clean up service for cellular waste to improve mental efficiency.  Among a variety of different hormones and neurotransmitters, exercise releases a protein called brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF). BDNF strengthens connections in the brain that make it less susceptible to over-react when introduced to different forms of stress.

During periods of acute emotional stress, actively coping by performing a short workout can be especially useful to immediately transition the brain’s interpretation of a negative stressor into a more positive association. Consistency is key– the more you exercise, the more consistently you strengthen your brain to better handle different types of stress.

Both cardiovascular (ex: walking, running, biking) and resisted (ex: weight lifting) exercise induce positive changes in the brain for stress management.  Exercise that incorporates mindfulness and deep breathing such as yoga, pilates, and tai chi also have particular benefit to calming over-stimulated minds. Outdoor workouts in nature are especially calming.

What are some of the ways you use exercise to manage stress? Share below!