Using tobacco products, consuming excess amounts of alcohol, and eating a poor diet are all common habits among Americans that are extremely detrimental to our health.
However, there’s another that seems to be widely accepted yet not emphasized enough as equally harmful: Stress. How many times a day do we find ourselves checking our phones, answering work-related emails long after the workday is over, or worrying about saving enough for retirement? Overstimulation, multitasking, constant distractions, and the blurry line between work and home life are things most of us experience on a daily basis that leads to a stress overload. Stress produces both mental and physical symptoms, such as headaches, fatigue, inability to focus, muscle tension, anxiety, depression, and more. According to a study conducted in 2012, consequences of prolonged stress include an increased risk of premature mortality. In other words, stress really can kill.
Eustress vs. Distress:
Animals, including humans, experience two types of stress. Positive stress, or “eustress”, occurs in response to situations that bring about mostly positive emotions but are still unsettling. Having a baby or getting married can produce “eustress”. On the contrary, “distress” is negative stress in response to dangerous situations that elicit the fight or flight mode. A little of both is natural. However, as stated by author and researcher Wallace J. Nichols, “today, non-life-threatening stressors activate the same biological systems, meaning the same physiological stress response that we use to run away from a lion on the Serengeti is activated when the mortgage bill shows up in the mail.” This type of stress has helped humans evolve by allowing us to react accordingly to escape predators and find food and mates.
Yet currently, as we encounter little difficulties throughout the day, our stress hormones remain high. These stress hormones keep us in an agitated state. Stress-related neurochemicals such as cortisol can damage our bodies long after the initial single stressor.
Overall, chronic stress negatively affects several systems of the body including cardiovascular, immune, digestive, nervous, and musculoskeletal. Chronic stress is defined as occurring for longer than 21 days in response to situations in our daily life. Chronic stress impairs function in the part of our brain responsible for higher level thinking. This causes hyperactivity in the amygdala, the fear and aggression center of the brain. By sensitizing the amygdala through constant, inappropriate arousal, increased stress can affect our ability to learn, retain information, or create new memories. Heightened levels of cortisol deplete dopamine and serotonin levels which can lead to feelings of exhaustion and depression.
Ongoing stress can contribute to discrepancies in one’s sleep cycle and metabolic function. Still, exercise can partially counter these discrepancies. The common route to treating these symptoms of stress, rather than addressing the root causes, is with pharmaceuticals. As of 2013, according to the Mayo Clinic, “antidepressants were the second most commonly prescribed class of drug in America”. Additionally, an analysis of FDA clinical trials shows that at least four of the main chemicals these drugs consist of don’t perform significantly better than placebos in their treatment. Treating stress this way is expensive and can easily lead to a prescription drug addiction.
How to get out of stress?
Thankfully, research has revealed that exercise can be an effective mode of treatment. Exercise induces numerous molecular and neuronal adaptations in the brainstem, hypothalamus, and basal ganglia. These are regions of the brain that constitute basic functions critical for health. For instance, these regions are responsible for regulation of the circadian clock, energy balance, and metabolism.
Exercise has positive effects on the body’s hormone balance as well. According to studies conducted by Harvard Health, exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, and stimulates the production of endorphins. Endorphins are chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators. They are responsible for the “runner’s high” and for the feelings of relaxation and optimism that accompany many hard workouts.
Regular exercise provides improvements in behavioral responses to stressors such as increased heart rate and blood pressure. If sustained over time, these stressors can lead to a heart attack, stroke, etc. Aerobic exercise training has also been shown to reduce coronary-prone behaviors like hostility and anger and can actually lower cardiovascular reactivity to stressors that we may encounter on a daily basis.
Why is exercise better?
Exercise provides a simple solution to mental and physical stress. Harvard Health has suggested that almost any type of exercise will help. Many people find that using large muscle groups in a rhythmic, repetitive fashion in “muscular meditation” works best. Exercise that gets the heart rate up (such as swimming) induces increased rhythmic breathing patterns like those involved in yoga. Deep breathing has immense positive effects on our mood and allows us to better cope with stressors.
Exercise as a means of stress relief has a plethora of benefits on both mental and physical health and comes at a much cheaper price than pharmaceuticals. There’s a common reluctance among stress-ridden Americans to see a therapist or specialist due to the stigma associated with mental health. Luckily, one can exercise almost anywhere and anytime, alone or with friends. In addition to experiencing enhanced mood, productivity, alertness, and focus, improvements in weight status and physique are apparent as well. In fact, companies that have implemented free regular exercise programs available to employees have experienced an increase in work performance and less sick days overall.
How to follow through:
The American College of Sports medicine recommends 150 minutes per week of light to moderate cardiovascular exercise, which equates to 30 minutes per day, and 2-3 times per week of resistance training. Breaking up the exercise throughout your day is acceptable as well, such as taking a ten-minute fast walk before work, another during your lunch break, and one more in the evening. Using exercise as a method of stress management can enhance physical and psychological health, and lead to a higher quality of life overall.
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