Stress & Exercise

In our fast paced, 21st century world stress is ubiquitous; everyone experiences it.

3,000 years ago, our ancestors dealt with stress, but the sources of their stress were very different than they are today. While being chased by a lion or having to run after your own dinner sounds pretty stressful, these were immediate stressors that were quickly resolved.

Once they were safe and their dinner was caught, our ancestors didn’t worry about impending deadlines, rush-hour traffic, mortgage payments or getting the kids to school on time. These stressors that you deal with every day are more chronic in nature – and they’re slowly causing your physical and mental health to deteriorate.

Physiological Response to Stress

Your body has a pretty incredible stress response. When you step out in front of a car your brain immediately receives a distress signal. It increases your heart rate, blood pressure and respiration. It tells your liver to dump glucose into your blood stream, causing blood sugar to skyrocket. It releases cortisol, the “gas” that keeps your stress response revving.

In the event of a lion chasing you, this response is incredibly adaptive. It allows you to mobilize your energy stores and react as efficiently as possible.

In the face of chronic stressors, this response becomes maladaptive and downright harmful. Chronically high rates of cortisol can have disastrous effects on your physical and mental health. 

Consequences of Long-Term Stress

Chronic stress is akin to your body believing that a lion is chasing after you all the time. Prolonged stress can wreak havoc on all of your body’s systems. Some of the effects include:

  • Cardiovascular complications

  • Psychological disorders including anxiety and depression

  • Digestive issues and headaches

  • Muscle tension and tightness

  • Weight gain

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Concentration and memory problems

When you’re feeling overburdened the last thing you want to do is add another activity to your to-do list. But exercise should be the one activity you make time to pencil in.

While exercise will take some time out of your day, it has clear stress-reduction benefits make it a no-brainer when battling chronic stress.

How Exercise Helps

There are a variety of ways exercise can be helpful in reducing stress levels. Specifically exercise:

Exercise can be a powerful, natural aid in the reduction of stress. However, a principle I’ve been working to better understand and practice is “your body cannot differentiate stressors.”

What does that mean?

Whether you’re cramming for a midterm, giving a presentation at work, running sprints at your local track or being chased by a lion, your body doesn’t know the difference and frankly, it doesn’t care.

This means that as much as exercise can help with stress, it can also hurt. In fact, long-term over exercise has symptoms very similar to chronic stress.

How to use Exercise to your Advantage

If exercise can improve and worsen stress, how do you ensure that you are exercising in a beneficial way? When you’re feeling burnt out, focus on these exercise tips to ensure your getting the most stress busting bang for your buck.

  • Low-moderate intensity. When stressed, you don’t want to exercise in a way that puts a ton of additional strain on your body. Include gentler forms of exercise like walking, jogging, yoga, and light cycling or strength training. Not sure what light to moderate means? Use the talk test. If you can still manage to hold a conversation you’re doing it right

  • Frequency>intensity or duration. The effects of an exercise session on stress are immediate. The more often you can incorporate exercise the more likely it is to have an accumulative effect on your overall stress levels

  • Include Deep breathing – Take deep, steady breaths at the beginning, end and periodically throughout your exercise sessions, focusing on the sensation of feeling your lungs expand and contract with air.

  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation This technique is best done at the end of a session (and can be done when not exercising) and includes contracting then releasing each major muscle, working from your head down.

  • Finish Strong. I’m not talking about eking out one more set of push-ups or stair sprints, here. I’m referring to finishing strong with your mind. End your session with a few deep breaths and a quick stretch. This is a great way to ensure you leave your exercise session feeling refreshed and relaxed, instead of more wound up.

While stress is an inevitable part of modern life, exercise can help reduce the havoc it wreaks on your body and mind. If you’ve been avoiding exercise because you feel you’re simply too busy, commit to including some of these practices 2-3 days a week. Incorporating physical activity will help you de-stress and improve your health, happiness and peace of mind.