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Exercise and Stress – How One Beats the Other

Examining the Connections Between Exercise and Stress

Exercise and stress have long been suspected of having, at first, some sort of a relationship. But our underrated medical knowledge and expertise has recently shed new light on the topic and proved that there is in fact a relationship, an inversely correlated one.

Meaning that our stress levels decrease the more we exercise, and in turn our happiness actually increases via generation of hormones (serotonin) responsible for happiness. Which goes to confirm the feel-good vibes you’ve bound to have experienced after a run or a nice swim.

Physical Activity Reduces Stress

We’ll start by stating this fact, and then go into the why’s and how’s of the phenomenon. Though, do we really need a reason to feel good? If you know that exercise will reduce your stress levels and make you feel better, do you really need to know the science behind it? In all honesty, probably not.

But for the sake of knowledge and just in case you need to impress your friends or a topic of discussion for that awkward first date, let’s dive into the shadows and find out just what exactly is stress and the benefits of exercise.

What is Stress?

The technical definition of stress is “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.”

What is stress and how can exercise help

It’s your body’s way of responding to any type of force or demand put upon it, whether good or bad. When you feel stressed, your body releases chemicals into the blood which give you energy and strength, perfect for when you’re doing something physical, but can be detrimental when dealing with it on an emotional level and there is no outlet for that extra energy.

To put it into perspective, seven out of ten people in the United States alone, confessed to the ADAA that they experience either stress or anxiety on a daily basis! The ADAA is the Anxiety and Depression Association of America and if anyone would know a thing or two about stress and it’s effects, it’s them.

Most of the respondents stated that the stress and anxiety interferes with their normal daily activities at least moderately. Even more so, when the American Psychological Association conducted their survey, nearly half the respondents reported an increase in stress year-over-year, and stated that they experience physical and emotional symptoms brought on by stress!

So is stress just an inevitable part of life then? The answer is yes. You’ve either experienced it, are currently experiencing it, or are bound to experience it at some point in the future. It’s just the way we’re wired, it’s impossible to eliminate.

What Causes Stress?

This is one of the reasons that stress is a smooth operator, because so many things can and do cause you stress. Stress is caused by both physical and emotional things or events. You’re bound to experience stress on a physical level if you’re hiking and a mountain lion decides to show up out of nowhere and cause your body to go into stress mode and run for it’s life, literally.

Where as emotional stress, though not as visible as the mountain lion, can be just as dangerous. You may see a mountain lion once or twice in your life, but emotional stress, such as worry about your family and/or job on a daily basis, takes it’s toll on the best of us.

We stress over all kinds of things, on a daily basis. Some of us stress over what other people think of us, how we’re going to pay next month’s bills on time (or if we’ll be able to pay at all), the health of our parents and loved ones, performing well at our jobs, etc.

Take a second and watch this informative, science backed, video on the dangers of stress.

With that being said, let’s look at the most common sources of stress:

Survival Stress – The good old natural evolutionary stress Mother Nature has endowed us with. This is known as the “fight or flight” stress type. Most if not all animals, including us humans, have this response to any immediate danger presented before us. When we are presented with something that has the potential to endanger us in some way, our body starts stressing out and releases extra energy and strength for us to either stay and fight, or flee the scene altogether.

Internal Stress – In my opinion, the most prevalent and important source of stress. This is because we impose this type of stress on ourselves by worrying about things that we have no control over. Some even go out of their way to put themselves in stressful situations just to experience the extra energy and strength that come along with stress, but this can be dangerous. Placing too much internal stress on yourself by worrying about things and situations out of your control will not help.

Environmental Stress – As the name suggests, this type of stress is brought about on your body by the environment you happen to be in or put your self in. Crowds, noise, stressful job, bad neighborhood, family, wilderness, and others, are good examples of some of the environments that can bring about stress. Identifying the environmental stress, and learning to deal with it or avoid it altogether is crucial in maintaining stress levels.

Fatigue and Overwork – Such a dangerous type of stress, mainly because it builds up over time and does grave damage to your body. Especially in our society where we are expected to work two jobs just to get by. This type of stress is brought about by working too hard at your job, school, business, or even home life. Most often it lingers because we are not properly trained to manage our time and reserve intervals for rest and relaxation. Because many people feel this is out of their control, it makes this one of the most hardest types of stress to manage. But there are methods that we’ll look at below.

INFOGRAPHIC: Is Stress Killing You?

INFOGRAPHIC: Is Stress Killing You?

Take a look at this awesome graphical representation of the dangers of stress and the statistics on stress in the U.S. As you can see, many choose exercise as a de-stress method.

the dangers of stress and proper stress relief - inforgaphic

What are the Signs of Stress?

signs and symptoms of stress and how to deal with them

Probably the most logical thing to understand, when it comes to properly dealing with stress, are the signs of stress and whether you have them. As is the case with most people, we either won’t admit it, or we will highly underestimate the level of stress we are under, just to get by.

However, by first understanding and detecting the symptoms, you’re in a much better position to do something about it. It’s also important to understand that there are two forms of stress you may be experiencing.

Your body and mind can experience immediate, or short-term stress, but also prolonged, long-term stress. Below are examples of some of the warnings signs for both periods.

Physical and Mental Signs of Short-Term Stress

Typically caused by something in your immediate environment, disrupting you and causing a quick reaction to something. This short-term stress is materialized in many ways, here are some of them:

  • Increased heartbeat and breathing
  • Dry mouth
  • Tense feeling, muscle tightness
  • Increased sweating
  • Making your hands, feet, and skin feel cold
  • Butterflies in your stomach, a sick feeling
  • More frequent bathroom visits
  • Muscle spasms, headaches, shortness of breath, and fatigue

Typically, the above signs are not considered detrimental, if you’re playing sports or doing some sort of physical activity by which you body is able to exert all of this extra energy. In those situations your body needs quick-reaction times and this sudden burst of your senses helps.

But when your body has no outlet for it, this short-term stress can have adverse affects on your mind and body, by manifesting itself in ways such as:

  • Clouding your judgement, leading to poor decision making
  • Easily distracted, being unable to concentrate
  • Making you feel less joyful, accompanied by a down feeling
  • Seeing challenging/difficult situations as threatening
  • Anxiousness, frustration, and anger
  • Feelings of rejection, fear of free time, decreased laughter, unwilling to communicate about it with others, and unable to work

Physical and Mental Signs of Long-Term Stress

Jumping into an even greater foe of our body and mind, a villain named long-term stress. This stress occurs, or has been occurring, over long periods of time, putting gradual and ever increasing pressure on your mind and body.

There is only so much our bodies can take though, and the effects of living with this burden for prolonged periods of time manifests itself in ways such as:

  • Appetite change (either a big increase or a decrease in eating)
  • Sleeping habits (either too much sleep, or too little)
  • Fiddling, twitching, biting of nails, pacing, teeth grinding, and other ‘nervous’ behaviors
  • Impacting your sex life performance
  • Feeling constantly tired or worn out
  • Weakening the immune system and allowing for more frequent flu and cold symptoms such as:
    • Asthma
    • Headaches
    • Stomach problems
    • Skin problems
    • Aches and pains

As you can imagine, long-term stress can seriously affect your mental health, and in turn your behavior. Experiencing stress for longer periods can affect your ability to think clearly, deal with even the basic problems in your life, or even doing simple chores like laundry, shaving, and punctuality. The below are some of the mental signs associated with long-term stress:

  • Anxiousness and worrying (sometimes manifested in anxiety disorders and panic attacks)
  • Increased probability of addiction and dependence on food, drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes
  • Disregarding the important things in life, such as school, personal appearance, and work
  • Development of elevation of irrational fears (natural disasters, germophobia, heights, small spaces)
  • Mood swings such as:
    • Frustration
    • Anger
    • Irritability
    • Irrationality
    • Defensiveness
    • Impatience
    • Overreaction
    • Restlessness
    • and even Depression

We’re by no means saying that if you happen to be experiencing some of the above stress signs in your life that it is a cause for concern. But what we are saying is that, aside from the normal life difficulties that are accompanied by the same symptoms, having a great amount of the above stress indicators is likely to equate to being under a lot of stress. Understanding that crucial first step is the key to dealing with stress in the first place.

If you believe you may be under a lot of stress and want to do something about it, we highly recommend taking an easy to fill out online stress test from Stress.org.uk as your pivot point in battling this omnipresent culprit.

How to Relieve Stress?

“Help!” Have you taken the stress test and concluded you’re way too stressed? Are you now wondering what the heck to do about it and feeling absolutely helpless? If so, take a step back, take a deep breath, breathe out slowly, you’re going to make it.

Because there are numerous stress managing techniques and strategies to help you relieve the stress, they include changing your habits, accepting the times you’re under stress, and avoiding stress causing situations.

But the number one way to relieve stress is to let your body do away with the extra bursts of energy through physical exercise.

exercise and stress - how exercise helps cope with stress

Physical Exercise as the Best Stress Combatant

Before we get all technical and jump into the science of it all, let us first acknowledge the true reason stress is so prevalent in our modern day lives: human beings are meant to move, not sit in chairs staring at screens.

Physical exercise is an essential part of the purpose of our bodies, otherwise we’d just be brains in jars. It is also the quickest way to a feel-good vibe, a feeling of well being and a radiant physical glow.

Even though most people are aware of this fact, that exercise fights stress, they often come up with endless, seemingly justifiable, excuses as to why they simply can’t fit it into their daily routine. Below we take a look at the more common ones.

Common (Faulty) Excuses for Not Exercising

Excuse #1: “I don’t have the time.”

Really? How much TV do you watch? How much time do you invest on a daily basis checking and updating your social media profiles? Take some time out of your day for about a week or two and document the above and quantify them, perhaps you’ll find that you have more time that is wrongly allocated than you think you do.

Additionally, you can incorporate working out into your TV time, by buying some strength training resistance bands, walking in place, or doing push-ups during commercials.

Excuse #2: “I’m too tired.”

You may not know this but you’re tired precisely because you don’t exercise. Working out gives you extra energy. This is due to your body generating more endorphins (those feel-good hormones) and getting your circulation going. Choose the time of the day that you feel at your best and fit your workout routine in, you won’t regret it.

Excuse #3: “I don’t get a break from the kids.”

Exercise with them! You’ll kill two bird with one stone as they say. Take the kids out to the park and let them play, while you use the free equipment to do your exercise routine. You can even teach them the importance of getting and staying in shape while you’re at it.

While they’re playing soccer, football, basketball, or whatever, walk around the field. Take them biking with you, walk around the neighborhood, sign up for family activities that involve lots of movement, and you’re all of a sudden presented with many options to rid yourself of this excuse. At the end of the day, your kids are the true benefactors of you being more fit.

Excuse #4: “Exercise is boring.”

Maybe some of them are, yes. But what about the ones you like or end up liking after your first try? Find the ones that interest you and expand on them, it’s only boring if you let it be. The good thing about exercise is that it comes in many shapes and forms, consider dancing for example, if you love to dance, isn’t that just exercising in style?

You can be on the treadmill and watch your favorite show, or read your favorite book, whatever you have to do to make it more exciting for you. Get your friends involved in on it, if you’re the social type who needs stimulation. Get creative and you’ll kill the boredom quickly!

Excuse #5: “I’ve tried before.”

Perhaps you were a little too unrealistic in your endeavors the first time around? Exercise is a marathon, not a sprint. Setting small, attainable, goals is key. Perhaps the first time around it seemed too hard, with little results. By setting smaller goals, you’ll be rewarded with successes more often, and not feel like a failure or a waste of time.

Keeping logs also helps, whether private or public (think social media apps that your friends and family can see). A workout buddy also helps, as you keep each other motivated and on track, as well as accountable for progress (or lack thereof). Having a workout buddy sometimes means you’re more likely to show up to the gym, for fear of letting them down.

How Exercise Helps Fight Stress

First off, among other things, exercise helps keep your heart healthy and provide your bio-system with a key ingredient, oxygen. But also, as a result of exercise, stress hormones get depleted and mood-enhancing chemicals get released, which helps us cope with and fight off stress.

Endorphins: Our body is capable of producing something called ‘endorphin’, which are commonly referred to as the happy hormones. Which, as you can probably guess, is an exact contrast to how stress makes you feel.

The reason exercise and any form of physical activity is so great is because of the release of these happy-feeling neurotransmitters. According to a study on Stress Management and Exercise Training, “the increase in endorphins in your body leads to a feeling of euphoria, modulation of appetite, the release of different sex hormones and an enhancement of immune response.” These help us reduce and combat the negative effects of stress.

Most importantly, aside from it’s scientifically proven ability to fight stress, exercise also has another major benefit. It allows you to forget your problems completely, and focus on the task at hand, giving you complete clarity, for however short or long it happens to be. It requires you to be completely absorbed and focused in on what you’re doing, that all the irritations and stress you felt throughout the day are now all but gone.

But the higher energy you’re experiencing as you’re exercising, combined with clarity and a calming feeling, will last long after the workout, as the positive endorphins that you released will leave you with an optimistic feel-good attitude long after you’ve left the gym.

Ready to Say Goodbye (to Stress)?

The benefits of exercise as a stress relief combatant have hopefully been cleared up and you’re ready to give it (another) go. But we know it can be hard, overwhelming at times. Which is why it is important to get into a workout routine, and set smaller goals for yourself, to get the healthier and stress-free life you’re dreaming of right now.

Keep the following two key takeaways in mind before you jump into it.

  • Do what you love: Choose the physical exercise routines that you love or enjoy, for example go with basketball if you’ve played it for the majority of your life but stopped because “you got too busy.” It is important to stick to something you enjoy in order to maintain the motivation levels for months and years to come.
  • Slow and steady wins the race: Don’t be afraid to start slow! Not only do you risk injuring yourself by throwing yourself into more than you can handle, but you’ll most likely burn out quicker. You’ll set yourself up for failure and instead of small successes and wins, you’ll be faced with failures that seem enormous. Go at your own pace, and gradually push yourself higher, no matter what anyone else tells you.

Lastly, if you feel this post has helped you in any way, or if you have some follow up questions on anything covered, please feel free to comment below and/or share the post with friends, family, and other fitness enthusiasts.