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The Relationship Between Exercise & Stress

By Tanja Gardner

Everyone knows that exercise reduces stress levels. Doesn't it? Actually, some of the research is a little conflicting. For a start, vigorous exercise is actually a stressor itself. On a physical level, exercise causes the tiny muscle fibres to actually tear, and then grow back stronger as they heal. Not exactly relaxing for the muscles in question! Quite apart from this, one study showed anxiety levels increase in the first 5-10 minutes of exercise as adrenaline, one of the key stress hormones, kicks in. So how can it be that exercise reduces our stress and anxiety levels over time?

The quick answer is that while exercise is a short-term stressor, lack of exercise is a long-term one. Our bodies are built for movement. When we're sedentary day after day, all the systems that have evolved to service a body-in-motion start to break down, which causes waste-products to build up.

Our stress response originally allowed us to either fight a potential threat get as far away from it as possible both fairly physical activities. All the biochemical changes the stress hormones released are based around this result. They allow us to get into action, and quickly! It's no surprise then, that unless we do what our bodies expect and get moving, those hormones have nothing to do but hang around in our bloodstream, making us feel jumpy, irritable and just plain stressed. As soon as we start moving though, the hormones have done their job. Our body as a whole can return to normal, and relaxation can ensue.

There's more to the de-stressing effect, though, than just clearing hormones from your bloodstream. First there's the well-documented release of endorphins nature's opiates into your bloodstream. These act to both deaden pain and make you feel wonderful. On top of this, regular exercise actually strengthens your body improving your sleep, boosting your circulatory and immune systems. Since these are the very things that the stress response attacks, regular exercise becomes a form of preventative maintenance.

Then there are psychological buffers that exercise offers against stress. As we set ourselves exercise plans and goals, and stick to them, we start believing in ourselves more. This can translate directly into the way we deal with the stressors in our life. If we feel more in control of them, the stressors become less powerful.

So what do the experts recommend when it comes to controlling stress with exercise?

First and foremost, don't overdo it. Too much exercise, or exercise sessions without enough rest time between them, lead to overtraining, and overtraining is as dangerous a stressor as anything the work world can throw at you. The current ACSM guideline for a healthy lifestyle is 30-45 minutes, 3-5 times a week. If you haven't exercised for some time, check with your doctor first, and then start small. Even 10 minutes three times a week is better than nothing. If you want to do more than this, feel free, but if you start waking up tired, getting injury prone, or losing ground instead of gaining it, you need to cut back, or you'll just increase your stress.

Secondly, make sure you enjoy what you do. Exercise performed because you have to is not going to keep you motivated to do it, and the resentment you feel won't help with your stress levels. There's a wealth of exercise options from walking, swimming and cycling, through to aerobics, martial arts and team sports.

In fact, you don't actually need to exercise to exercise. All you need to do is get active so if walking the dog, digging in your garden, or playing with your kids appeals to you more, they're just as valid. And if you need a little help making the commitment, consider the services of a personal trainer.

Lastly, be aware that whatever is causing the stress, simple activity is not going to magically deal with it. If you're not sure where your stress is coming from, you might benefit from one-to-one coaching with a stress management expert. If you know the root cause, however, getting active will put you in a far better frame of mind, body and spirit, to manage it yourself. And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is the true miracle of exercise.

Copyright Tanja Gardner, Optimum Life, January 2005.

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