To begin with, vigorous exercise is in fact stressor itself. On a concrete level, exercise causes the small muscle fibres to really tear, and then grow back stronger as they cure. Not just relaxing for the muscles in question! Quite apart from that, one study demonstrated anxiety levels rise from the first 5-10 minutes of exercise as adrenaline – one of the main stress hormones – kicks in. So how is it 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. As we mentioned in last week’s anxiety newsletter, our bodies are made for movement. After we’re sedentary day after day, all of the systems which have evolved to support a body-in-motion begin to break down, which causes waste-products to accumulate.
Our stress response initially allowed us to fight a possible hazard get as far away from it as you can. These are both quite physical actions. All of the biochemical modifications – the stress hormones released – are based around this reaction. They let us get into action – and fast! It is no surprise, then, that unless we do what our bodies expect and get going, these hormones have nothing to do but hang around in our blood, which makes us feel jumpy, irritable and just plain stressed. Whenever we start moving though, the hormones have done their job. Our body as a whole can go back to normal, and comfort can ensue.
There is more to the de-stressing effect, however, than simply clearing hormones from your blood. First there is the well-documented release of endorphins- character’s opiates – into your blood. These act to both deaden pain and make you feel wonderful. In addition to this, regular exercise actually strengthens your body – enhancing your sleep, boosting your immune and circulatory systems. Since these are the very things that the stress reaction strikes, regular exercise becomes a kind of preventative maintenance.
Then there are psychological buffers that exercise offers against anxiety. As we put ourselves exercise programs and goals, and stick to them, we start believing in ourselves more. This can translate directly into the way we cope with the stressors in our life. If we feel more in control of them, the stressors become less powerful.
USING EXERCISE TO MANAGE STRESS
So what do the experts recommend when it comes to controlling anxiety with exercise?
First and foremost, do not 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 that the work world can throw at you. The recent ACSM guideline for a healthy lifestyle is 30-45 minutes, 3-5 times per week. When you haven’t exercised for a while, check with your physician first, then start small. Even 10 minutes three times a week is much better than nothing. If you wish to do more than that, feel free, but if you start waking up exhausted, getting injury prone, or losing ground rather than gaining it, you want to cut back, or you will just raise your stress.
Secondly, be certain you enjoy what you do. Exercise performed because you have to isn’t going to keep you motivated to do it, and the bitterness you feel will not help with your stress levels. There’s an abundance of exercise options – from walking, swimming and cycling, through to aerobics, martial arts and team sports.
In actuality, you do not really need to’exercise’ to exercise. All you will need to do is get busy – so if walking the dog, digging in your garden, or playing with your children appeals to you more, they are equally as valid. And if you will need a little help making the dedication, consider the assistance of a personal trainer.
Lastly, bear in mind that whatever is causing the stress, easy activity isn’t going to magically manage this. If you’re not certain where your stress is coming from, you may benefit from one-to-one training with a stress management specialist. If you know the root cause, however, getting active will set you in a much better frame of mind, body and soul, to handle it yourself. And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is the real miracle of exercise.