Exercise and stress: Get moving to combat stress

Life is full of surprises...not all of them good. Life's little events can often cause stress, anxiety and a bad case of the blues. Some of these we expect--the change from Fall to Winter is often a rough transition for many of us and bad weather can make you feel tired and cranky. The holidays are often a rollercoaster of emotions, bringing out our best and, sometimes, our worst. Then there are the unexpected surprises--losing a job, moving to a new city, contracting an illness, fender benders and other events, big and small that test our mental strength.

Unfortunately, we can't predict the future, but we can find ways to relieve stress in healthy ways. One of the best ways to work out the stress and pull yourself out of the dumps is to move your body.

Detoxification of Stress Related Compounds:

During the stress response somewhere in the neighborhood of 1500 biochemical reactions occur in the body. Neurotransmitters are activated, hormones are released, and nutrients are metabolized. Some body systems (e.g., the cardiovascular system) accelerate their functions and others (e.g., the gastrointestinal system) slow down their operations in response to stress. This is commonly referred to as the fight of flight response. The body is being prepared to expend physical energy which in prehistoric times was necessary for survival. In modern times most human stress is psycho-social in nature, so the need to respond physically in most cases is unnecessary. Unfortunately the byproducts of the stress response continue to circulate in the body and have the potential to create physical illness (e.g., cortisol secretion's impact on the immune system). Regular exercise is useful in removing the byproducts of the stress response by providing the opportunity to simulate the fighting or running dictated by the fight or flight phenomenon. As such, regular exercise allows the body to return to homeostasis faster and reduce the physical impact of psycho-social stress.

Physical Activity as an Outlet for Anger and Hostility:

Recent research has documented the important role that expression or repression of anger and hostility plays in disease progression. For many, physical activity is a healthy catharsis for this most caustic of emotions. Used properly (see recommendations below) exercise provides a socially acceptable means of physically releasing negative energy. Whether one gets in a racquetball court and bangs away at at a ball, or beats up on their pillow, the physical release of energy appears to dissipate feelings of anger in a healthy way.

Reduction of Muscular Tension:

During stress muscles contract (Bracing) and loose their normal resting muscle tone. Bouts of physical activity allow muscles to work, thereby releasing stored energy and allowing muscle groups to return to their normal resting potential. This action also reduces further stress that is precipitated by pain and discomfort associated with muscular tension (e.g., tension headaches, arthritic joint pain, backache, temporomandibular joint dysfunction). Stretching and yoga are also effective in reducing muscular tension.

Endorphin Theories :

Catecholamines including β endorphins have been shown to increase during physical activity of twenty minutes or more. Chemically similar to opiate compounds this morphine like substance has been shown to provide an analgesic (pain relieving) effect and promote a sense of euphoria. First suggested as the mechanism of the so called second wind or runner's high, the presence and effect of these chemical compounds in the brain is now controversial (see: Stoll, O. (1997). The positive mood states associated with frequent exercise are so significant that some have suggested that this is a more effective treatment for clinical depression than either psychotherapy, or the use anti depression drugs.

Physical activities recommended for stress and emotional health management?

The form of exercise chosen should be enjoyable. Individuals will be more likely to continue activities that they perceive as fun compared to those that are viewed as pure drudgery.

Activities should be non-competitive and ego void.

Choose activities that promote personal satisfaction. In general, try to find activities that promote positive feelings regarding your performance.

How much exercise?

The frequency and duration of exercise is determined by ones goals. To get in shape quicker it is recommended that one exercise frequently as opposed to fewer times and longer durations.

The results, published in the January 2005 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, are comparable to results from studies in which patients with mild to moderate depression were treated with antidepressants or cognitive therapy.

Reference: American Journal of Preventive Medicine. January, 2005

A 2001 study conducted by Duke University found that exercise is much more effective at treating depression than conventional pharmacological approaches using antidepressants. There have been other studies done over the years, the most recent one being a study conducted by Jasper Smits at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Exercise was found to significantly change neurotransmitter systems in the brain in a positive way, which in turn lifted the patient out of depression as the level of endorphins present in the body increased.

"Stress is nothing more than a socially acceptable form of mental illness"