Stress – why exercise can be the best medicine

We all experience stress and anxiety at some point in our lives but how do you cope when the little niggles you experience each day start to become overwhelming?

Stress is a normal physical reaction to events or circumstances that are upsetting or threatening. The nervous system responds by releasing stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol which increase the heart rate, tense the muscles and sharpen the senses – the primitive ‘fight or flight’ reaction.

In many instances this can be a good thing; it can help you meet a looming deadline, win a sports match or brake in time to avoid the dog crossing the road. But in today’s fast-paced, high-pressure society, stress can become part of everyday life and its effects can be devastating.

Chronic stress has been linked to a range of health problems from headaches and stomach upsets to more serious conditions such as obesity, depression, skin diseases, osteoporosis, heart disease, diabetes and even cancer.

The causes of stress are many and diverse and it isn’t always possible to eradicate them. Rather than attempting to control the external force causing the stress, it is much more effective to modify the way we deal with it.

Some people turn to medication while other common coping strategies including drinking alcohol or over-eating which, in turn, have their own negative impact on both physical and mental health. However, exercise not only helps to deal with stress, it also has many other well-documented health benefits.

A number of studies have found that exercise can reduce stress and anxiety. Research carried out by scientists Landers and Petruzello have found out that exercise is at least as effective in the treatment of mild anxiety and clinical depression as psychotherapy and medication.

So how does it work? In the first instance, exercise increases the production of endorphins, feel-good chemicals that boost your mood and create a feeling of wellbeing. People who work out often experience what they call an exercise ‘high’.

Those who experience stress often find it difficult to sleep, which usually exacerbates their situation by leaving them feeling tired and irritable. Exercise can improve sleep patterns. It also increases the blood flow to both the body and brain, leading to increased energy levels, a sharper sense of focus and a feeling of being alert.

Simply participating in physical activity can take your mind off the causes of stress and help you to shed tension. More mindful forms of exercise such as yoga and Pilates actually promote relaxation while rhythmic activities such as swimming and walking can create an almost meditative state. Depending on the activity you choose, it can also be social, helping you to relax and providing a support network.

A single exercise session can be enough to boost your mood temporarily but for long-term effects, regular physical activity is the key. If you’re new to exercise, start slowly with gentle activities such as walking or swimming. It’s also a good idea to try lots of different types of exercise and find the one you enjoy. Forcing yourself to attend a fitness class you hate or go to the gym when you’d rather be exercising outdoors is self-defeating and will only leave you feeling more stressed.

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