EXERCISE AS STRESS RELIEF
You may have heard of the runners high, but how can exercise relieve stress? Is it only for runners and what exactly are endorphins?
We are often told of the many benefits of exercise, not least on this website. It improves health, boosts immunity, helps you manage your weight and protects your heart. But did you know it is also one of the best natural stress relievers there is? One could argue the case that it is in fact more effective than prescription drugs. Finally many GPs and psychotherapists are now beginning to prescribe exercise as a viable and proven way to address stress, anxiety and depression.
In the modern world the demands and pressures we find ourselves under on a daily basis can easily lead to stress related illnesses and burn out. Exercise can help to alleviate those pressures in a number of ways helping to make life more manageable and therefore more enjoyable. There is no absolute definition of stress and no scale upon which it can be measured, but it manifests itself in numerous physical and emotional ways.
So how can exercise help? Firstly, let’s take a look at the chemistry and the physiological aspects.
Around 1500 biochemical reactions occur in the body during the stress response, triggering a reaction commonly referred to as the fight or flight response. The body is preparing itself to expend energy in order to fight or escape. In today’s society most of our stressors are psycho-social in origin and rarely require such physical measures. However, the body responds in the same way whether those threats be physical or emotional, and the by-products of such biochemical reactions (the triggering of neurotransmitters, excretion of various hormones etc.) will continue to travel around the system. It is these by-products that need to be managed through stress relief. Stress in itself is not dangerous and is necessary in many situations, but a chronic overload can be a causal or contributing factor to virtually all major illnesses due to the effect it has on the body’s immunity (e.g. through excess long term cortisol excretion).
Because regular exercise is physical it can stimulate the reaction of fight or flight and in doing so removes those by-products of the stress response. As such, regular exercise allows the body to return to homeostasis (balance) more quickly and efficiently, thus reducing the physical impact of psycho-social stress.
Studies have also shown that for regular exercisers, the ability to adapt to the physical stresses of training enables you to become more resilient to the many physiological manifestations of other daily stresses. There is a less extreme response and you are better able to cope.
In the 1970s research was being undertaken on drug addiction. During these studies scientists also discovered that the brain produces its own set of neurochemicals which share the same neural receptors with drugs such morphine, opium and heroin, but are actually far more potent than any of these substances.
These neurochemicals (endorphins and enkephalins) are released by the pituitary gland, through the spinal cord and from other areas of the nervous system to calm us down in times of both physical and emotional stress. By binding to opioid receptors in neurons, they block the release of neurotransmitters and thus inhibit the transmission of pain impulses to the brain. These are the same chemicals that can give you that natural high after a tough workout, hence the term ‘runner’s high’. If you’ve ever experienced that sense of euphoria after a tough cardio session, you will know exactly why it’s called a high – you are feeling the effects of a mood elevation that has been induced by endorphins.
New technology and imaging methods have allowed scientists to monitor how endorphins interact with other cells in the brain and they can therefore prove that they do play a role in the rush that exercise can produce. Further research needs to be undertaken to categorically state if it is the endorphins themselves that cause this state of well-being or if it is as an indirect consequence of the inhibition of pain receptors, which in turn permits the effects of other neurotransmitters e.g. serotonin and dopamine to be enhanced.
As with all types of exercise, instant results are not attainable. You still have to put the effort in to achieve this high. The release of endorphins generally occurs within around 30 minutes from the start of a cardiovascular training session.
Here are some of the psychological ways that physical activity can be of benefit in the battle against stress.
Taking time out
When you take time out to exercise you are removing yourself from the elements in your life that may be adding to your stress levels. Having something else to focus on will make your worries disappear for that time you are training. Focusing on technique, the way your body is moving, your breathing, counting the number of laps you are swimming or the kilometres you are running all distract the mind from the situations that may be causing you to suffer from stress. Just going for a walk can clear the mind both physically and mentally. The increased flow of blood and therefore oxygen and nutrients to the brain helps to flush out any toxic build up, helping you to think more clearly, and often more rationally.
Practices such as yoga or tai-chi include elements of meditation, focusing on breathing techniques and fluid movements. However if this is not your ‘thing’ the rhythmical nature of activities such as swimming, running and cycling can have a similar effect.
Exercise really does help to boost self esteem. The sense of achievement gained from reaching a fitness goal and the changes you will see in your body can increase your levels of confidence which can then be transferred to other parts of your life. A positive self image can negate the psychological effects of stress. When you feel better about yourself you are more equipped to cope with whatever life throws at you.
In summary, virtually any form of exercise can help you relieve stress; from aerobic to weight-training, yoga to walking the dog. You need to find the method that suits you and make it part of your lifestyle. Give it a go!