Stress and Exercise

Stress and Exercise

How Our Body Reacts to Stress

Stress is a normal physiological and physical reaction to the demands of modern life. In fact in some cases, stress can be quite helpful. Your body comes hard-wired with an alarm system that senses danger. Once activated this alarm system diverts energy from our digestion and moves it to our arms, legs, lungs, and heart.

Our muscles tense, our hearts beat faster, our breathing becomes shallow and rapid. This is known as the’ flight or fight’ response to stress. Our bodies become ready to fight for our lives, or run for our lives. This response goes back to our earliest ancestors and the reaction is the same for any perceived stress. Your body does not know the difference between a hard, rapidly approaching deadline and a Saber-Toothed Tiger about to strike. The reaction is the same fight or flight.

In normal circumstances the body reacts to the stressful situation, and once the stress has passed it returns to normal function.

Chronic Stress

However, in our modern world we are constantly being subjected to stressful images and situations and for many of us the Stress Response is never turned off. This is known as living in a state of chronic stress and it can lead to many health problems such as high blood pressure, obesity, and Insomnia. That is why it is so important to learn natural and safe ways to manage daily stress and turn off the stress response.

Here are a few ideas:

Exercise on a Regular Basis

Regular exercise is perhaps the easiest change a person can make to manage stress and improve overall health. Any form of regular movement from running, cycling, boxing and swimming to gentler forms of exercise like yoga and pilates have been shown to have a positive effect on reducing stress levels.

Herbal Remedies Combat Stress

Herbal remedies such as Passionflower, Kava, and Valerian have been found to have anti-anxiety and calming effects in humans. All are available in pill or liquid form at health food stores, although it is best to take these products under the direction of a qualified health professional. Valerian is usually taken about an hour before bedtime. It takes about two to three weeks to work and shouldn’t be used for more than three months at a time.

Massage Therapy

Body work such as massage therapy, and cranial sacral therapy have also been shown to reduce anxiety and stress levels. These techniques, and other forms of body work, are widely used to diminish muscle tension, relieve stress and improve sleep.

Finally, when it comes to stress, Laughter may indeed be the best medicine. According to the Mayo Clinic a’Good laugh not only lightens your load mentally, but has a number of physiological benefits as well,’ such as increasing your intake of oxygen rich air, and stimulating the release of endorphins, the’feel-good’ hormones in your brain and laughter stimulates circulation and helps ease muscle tension.


Using Exercise as a Stress Management Tool

As our society becomes more health-conscious, there has been an increased focus on the importance of exercise. Many people exercise to control weight and get in better physical condition to become more healthy or physically attractive, but exercise and stress management are also closely linked. Exercise can be an extremely effective stress reliever for several reasons:

Outlet For Frustrations:

When life’s annoyances or frustrating situations build up, you can feel stressed or experience low-grade anger. More high-energy forms of exercise like boxing or weight training can also provide an effective release of these negative emotions, turning these otherwise potentially unhealthy emotions into motivation for increased health and well-being.

Exercise and Stress Hormones:

Exercise can decrease ‘stress hormones’ like cortisol, and increase endorphins, your body’s ‘feel-good’ chemicals, giving your mood a natural boost. (This is the chemistry behind a ‘runner’s high’.)


Physical activity itself can take your mind off of your problems and either redirect it on the activity at hand or get you into a zen-like state. Exercise usually involves a change of scenery as well, either taking you to a gym, a boxing ring, a park, a scenic mountain, a biking trail or a neighborhood sidewalk, all of which can be pleasant, low-stress places.

Looking’ Good:

I have to include this possibly superficial, but significant, benefit of exercise: it helps you lose weight, tone your body, and maintain a healthy glow and a smile. You may feel a subtle but significant boost as your clothes look more flattering on, and you project an aura of increased confidence and strength. Call me shallow, but this does impact many people, and can relieve stress for those who are concerned with their appearance and worry that they don’t look as healthy as they could.

Social Support:

The benefits of social support are well-documented and manifold. Because exercise and physical activity can often involve others, you can enjoy a double dose of stress-relief with the combined benefits of exercise and fun with friends. Whether you’re in a class with others, working out in the gym with a buddy, playing softball in a league or taking a walk or hike with a friend, having others work out with you can make you feel good as well as help motivate you to push harder to get a better workout without it feeling so much like ‘work’.

Increased Health:

While stress can cause illness, illness can also cause stress, with the physical pain, missed activities, feelings of isolation and other costs that come with it. So improving your overall health and longevity with exercise can also save you a great deal of stress in the short run (by strengthening your immunity to colds, the flu and other minor illnesses) and the long run (by helping you stay healthier longer, and enjoy life more because of it).

Resilience To Stress:

That’s right, research suggests that physical activity may be linked to lower physiological reactivity toward stress. Simply put, those who get more exercise may become less affected by the stress they face. So, in addition to all the other benefits, exercise may supply some immunity toward future stress as well as a way to cope with current stress. If that’s not a great reason to get more active, I don’t know what is!

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