Push aside the Prozac; discard those daily doses of St John’s Wort; cut the counselling; banish the booze – the most effective way to counter life stress might just be achieved through a gym membership or a pair of running shoes.
Making the Connection
In today’s world of quick fixes, and quicker decision making, people have become more impulsive than ever. Rather than seeking natural alternatives to age old concerns we attempt to, instead, navigate our daily dilemmas through the ever-reliable “path of least resistance”, where practicing positive thinking and deep breathing to control an agitated mindset is discarded in favor of binge eating.
As with anything worth doing well, changing our way of thinking to where stress is more easily managed is best accomplished through a range of positive behaviors rather than short term solutions.
The most effective way to manage stress is, at least in this author’s opinion, through adherence to regular exercise. We have all heard it before and many of us are tired of having it preached to us, but daily exercise – in particular, high intensity activities such as weight training for multiple sets – is the best natural method (or best method, period) for stress management. Here’s why.
The Science Behind the Stress
When we encounter stress (and here we will consider the negative kind, that which negatively affects our day to day life – such as unsatisfying work, health problems or marital difficulties – not the positive type which precipitates or results from personal accomplishments and challenges) a chemical cascade creates an accumulation of the stress hormone cortisol and an activation of our fight or flight response. Both of these act to short-circuit our rational thought processes and undermine our decision making ability; thus, under such conditions we are more likely to avoid productive behaviors and engage in destructive ones. The cumulative result of which is reflected in our increasingly agitated mindset.
It’s under times of stress that we are just as likely to press the quick dial to our local pizza joint as we are to attempt anything remotely physical.
In other words, when we feel the loss of control that often accompanies difficult life circumstances, our brain – most notably the prefrontal cortex, which governs self-control, decision making and willpower – activates the sympathetic nervous system which, in turn, drives our heart rate up while reducing its variability (a physiological phenomenon where the time interval between heart beats varies). Our fight or flight response then takes command, prompting us to act without regard for the consequences of our actions, a process which may only serve to exacerbate our existing stress levels. It is often at this point we seek forbidden foods, drink alcohol to excess, or engage in other reckless activities. Through physical exercise (any exercise, but most notably the intensive variety) we teach our brain to switch-on our parasympathetic nervous system, which, once activated, negates the fight or flight response, drives our heart rate down and contributes to a sense of focus and calm. We become more in control of our actions and are more likely to make positive choices.
Exercise can re-wire our brains to such an extent that we become more relaxed, composed, and generally happier about our lives.
With these attributes in place, stressful events, when they do occur, are unlikely to have the same impact on us. Thus we become less stressed. Exercise, in this instance, serves as prevention rather than cure. But sustained physical activity can also counter negative stress if and when such stress does rear its ugly head.
Chemical Warfare – The Positive Kind
The main reason why stressed and depressed people often turn to ultimately ineffective forms of relief such as alcohol, anti-depressants and fatty, sugary foods is because of the short-term medicinal effects such products promote (primarily through the release of the feel-good hormones serotonin and dopamine). Again taking the easier path, people delude themselves into thinking that such approaches will continue to serve as an effective way to manage their lives.
Given that all of the above are, if consumed regularly, extremely toxic on our bodies, we become over the long term even more stressed than we were to begin with – the only other difference being we have a new set of stress-inducing problems to contend with. If there was a way to obviate the need for such short-term and ultimately harmful enhancement of mood and stress diminishment, surely there would be much demand for it!
Anti-depressant medications aside (under certain circumstances and for certain people, anti-depressants do have a very real use), the only viable way to activate our brain chemistry to counter negative stress is through regular exercise.
Ask anyone who has exercised for any length of time and they’ll invariably describe the feel-good effects such activity engenders.
During the training process the brain, to counter any associated physical discomfort, releases from its pituitary gland endorphins (opioid peptides which function as neurotransmitters) to produce an analgesic feeling of well-being which lasts not only the duration of the workout itself, but for many hours post-training. Many seasoned lifters will, in fact, find it almost impossible to become agitated following an intensive weight-oriented workout (unless, of course, they are in the final stages of a pre-contest bodybuilding diet, in which case physical and mental depletion resulting from their ultra low calorie nutrition may put them a little on edge).
The brain’s ever-stocked pharmaceutical supply is not limited to the morphine-like endorphins. Both serotonin (which promotes euphoria and enhances cognitive functions such as memory and learning) and dopamine (which does not directly promote feelings of euphoria, but encourage behaviors that do) are released during, and after, physical fitness training. These chemicals – also released through anti-depressant medication, sweet foods and certain narcotics – produce euphoria and a much-coveted high (just as runners experience the so-called runners high).
Extensive documentation shows that regular exercise can induce beneficial sedative and analgesic effects.
Scientists have over the past decade identified, in human subjects, brain and immune system receptors which are activated in response to chemicals produced in the body called endocannabinoids; such receptors and chemicals combine to produce feelings similar to that which can be obtained through the cannabis plant. The reason why we don’t walk around in a perpetually blissful state through such an interaction is due in part to the small quantity of these endocannabinoids we produce and the conditions necessary for their release. These calm-inducing chemicals are released to bind with their specific receptors in response to physical exercise and are perhaps yet another reason why sustained physical movement produces feelings of euphoria.
Breathe In, Breathe Out
Physical exercise, when performed correctly, also encourages steady breathing, which can promote a meditative effect to produce feelings of calm (which, as we know, minimizes stress). In fact, it is the deep breathing and intensive concentration for which meditation is noted to encourage that exercise so effectively replicates. Also, through its ability to efficiently supply oxygen and nutrients to the brain – both of which are needed to restore clarity of thinking and promote rational decision making, remembering that our choices can impact our stress levels – exercise further promotes stress minimization.
Countering Stress Socially
Other, less biologically-based, but no less favorable, effects can result from regular exercise. Through training with friends or simply being part of the crowd at one’s local gym, we feel more connected, via a shared interest, to others. Such support and camaraderie are thought to significantly counter the effects of daily stress, most notably in female populations.
What makes a shared interest in physical fitness so enticing from a stress-reduction standpoint is the fact that people can engage together in something that is productive, not destructive.
By exercising socially the feel-good response from any chemical release that accompanies the training effect is intensified; our enjoyment level is raised and this can only have a positive flow-on effect for stress management.
Balancing It Out
Like all good practices, too much exercise may actually contribute to rising stress levels. Anything, if overdone, may result in diminishing returns. For example, when we exercise we also produce various by-products of aerobic and anaerobic metabolism along with free radicals and, at times, the stress hormone cortisol. Fortunately, the effect of this accumulated toxicity is relatively minor and can easily be negated through adequate recovery and proper nutritional intake. However, whenever we take a good thing too far and try to train more than we should, over-training syndrome, an extremely distressing state, may result. So be sure to closely monitor your training schedule; so long as you continue to receive the favorable de-stressing advantages and athletic benefits that caused you to begin training in the first place, you are on the right track. If you feel unusually tired, agitated and sore then cut back on the quantity of training you do until you find the perfect balance.
I have over the years sought to determine exactly why many of my clients continue to train with me even after they have achieved their training goals. This line of thinking has led me to conclude that it’s the positive, drug-like feelings associated with effectively prescribed exercise protocols that keep them coming back time and again. Indeed, when asked what they enjoy most about their training sessions many of these clients contend that it is, in fact, the positive feelings they receive which inspire them to continue their fitness journey. We all know that exercise produces a calm, relaxed mindset conducive to lowered stress levels – now we know why.
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- Fontes-Ribeiro, C.A. Marques, E., Pereira, F., C., Silva, A., P & Macedo, T., R. May Exercise Prevent Addiction?; Current Neuropharmacology. 2011 Mar;9(1):45-8.
- McGonigal, K. (2012). Maximum Willpower: How to Master the New Science of Self-Control. Macmillan: London.
- Segerstrom, S.C., & Nes, L. S. Heart-Rate Variability Reflects Self-Regulatory Strength, Effort, and Fatigue. Psychological Science 18 (2007): 275-81
- Sparling, P. B., Giuffrida, A., Piomelli, D., Rosskopf, L., & Dietrich, A. Exercise activates the endocannabinoid system. Neuroreport. 2003 Dec 2;14(17):2209-11.