Feeling stressed? Exercise for body and mind
“ If there were a drug that could do for human health everything that exercise can, it would likely be the most valuable pharmaceutical ever developed.” (Tarnopolsky, 2016, cited in Oaklander, 2016)
The body’s stress response is triggered when our brain (amygdala) detects danger and our body’s resources are not sufficient to manage the demands of the situation. Prolonged periods of stress affects us negatively as it suppresses the immune system making us vulnerable to illnesses, increases feelings of tiredness as well as lowering our mood and reducing our ability to cope with challenges (Jackson, 2013).
How does exercise help to manage stress?
Exercise helps to restore energy as it increases the efficiency of our body’s ability to metabolises glucose to provide power to respond to the challenge. The movement relaxes our muscles and builds our strength. Exercise improves and regulates mood, our breathing and reduces muscle tension.
When feeling tense, these symptoms can interact in a feedback loop between the body and the brain. It regulates the signals in the brainstem enabling the activation of the body’s calm response. To manage uncomfortable feelings when stressed, you can interpret these as the body’s reaction to increasing energy level to deal with a challenge (Medina, 2008).
The benefits of exercise
Health professionals are increasingly recommending, based on scientific research, that we should exercise because it is good to restore and maintain our health. Regular exercise has significant benefits for our body and mind: it lowers the risk of developing diseases such as heart problems, diabetes and high blood pressure.
It also helps to build and strengthen bones and muscles, as well as strengthens our immune system. Physical activity increases our aerobic capacity strengthening our lungs and helping to keep our bodies well oxygenated. It also helps to boost our metabolism and maintain a stable weight (Ratey &Hagerman, 2010).
Exercise helps us to keep alert, increases energy and improves sleep helping to reduce fatigue, and as a result, we feel better, healthier and more confident. (Ratey & Hagerman, 2010).
Exercise enhances our executive functions. When we are physically active, we are better able to focus on tasks (White & Wojcicki, 2016). When we are physically active, the brain releases endorphins, strengthening connections between neurons influencing our ability to concentrate, to evaluate information and make decisions. Exercise also enhances our ability to remember things better (Medina, 2008).
What counts as exercise?
We tend to assume that it refers to long and strenuous workouts in the gym. Any activity that requires movement and that accelerates our heart rate moderately is beneficial. Going for a walk or jogging, as well as stretching and balancing exercises to increase our flexibility, posture and balance.
The general recommendation is about 30 minutes a day, five times a week of moderate level of exercise, including aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities (White & Wojcicki, 2010). To benefit from exercising it is essential to have a routine and persevere with our efforts.
We can notice the benefits of exercising after a period of regular activity that includes repeated exercises so that the body can adapt to the increasing demand for building strength and resilience. Consistent effort increases our fitness level: as the lungs can process more oxygen, our body is increasingly more able to cope with challenges.
Hillman, C.H. et al (2008) “Be smart, exercise your heart: exercise effects of brain and cognition”. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Volume 9. pp.58-65.
Jackson, E. (2013) “Stress relief: the role of exercise in stress management.” Health and Fitness Journal. American College of Sports Medicine. May/June 2013, Volume 17, Issue 3, pp14-19.
Medina, J. (2008) Brain Rules: 12 Principles for surviving and thriving at work, home and school. Seattle: Pear Press.
Oaklander, M. (2016) “The new science of exercise“, Time Health, 12 September
Ratey, J. & Hagerman, E. (2010) Spark. How exercise will improve the performance of your brain. London: Quercus.
White, S.M, & Wojcicki, T.R. (2010) “Staying mentally sharp through physical activity.” American College of Sports Medicine. September, p.4-5