Author: Shoshana Belisle, MSW, MA, RYT, Namaste Wellness Advisor and Director of Wellness Research
Our bodies and minds are designed to adapt and respond to a wide variety of stressors. In fact, the demands of life are what motivate us to learn, grow, expand, and develop. If you were to reflect upon your proudest accomplishments, most likely they would involve overcoming some type of obstacle that required you to effectively handle the stress of pushing past your imagined limitations. Given that we have an innate drive to actualize our human potential, living stress-free would ultimately result in little pleasure or fulfillment and would leave us feeling empty. However, establishing an optimal stress load is essential to wellbeing. Too little creates stagnation; too much creates suffering.
Stress involves our psychological perception of pressure as well as our body’s response to these triggers. Activation of the “fight or flight response,” including the body’s release of stress hormones (i.e. adrenaline and cortisol), creates temporary reactions that help us face dangers, deadlines, and challenges. Our survival as a species is partially attributable to this adaptability to stress, but problems arise when the stress is too acute or is sustained for extended periods without sufficient opportunities to rest and restore. The research is clear that when high stress becomes chronic, the risk of the following serious health conditions increases: musculoskeletal tension (leading to headaches, migraines and back pain), aggravation of respiratory disorders, panic attacks, digestive disorders, hypertension, heart attack, stroke, chronic fatigue, metabolic disorders, immune disorders, and reproductive challenges. Chronic stress is serious and pervasive. In fact, it was estimated that 75-90% of doctor visits involve stress-related ailments.
EXERCISE TO REDUCE THE STRESS RESPONSE
The good news is that there are wellness strategies we can employ that can radically reduce the impact of stress in our lives. During this blog post, we focus on the powerful impact of exercise and other forms of movement.
Both The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the American Psychological Association (APA) include exercise in their recommendations for effective ways to manage stress. The type of movement does not have to be intense, time-consuming, expensive or complicated. According to NIMH, “just 30 minutes per day of walking can help boost your mood and improve your health.” The APA says, “A brisk 30-minute walk or a dance session in the living room can do the trick.” Research has found that when practiced over time, exercise bolsters our ability to respond to stress-provoking circumstances. The greatest benefits come from consistent practice - reflected in reductions in levels of the stress hormone cortisol, but even occasional (“acute’) exercise practiced prior to stress exposure can lead to measurable changes in stress biomarkers.
How does exercise help with stress reduction?
Some research has shown that consistent exercise changes the way that the brain responds to stress-provoking triggers. One study found that exercise promotes the growth of neurons in the ventral hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that is responsible for stress, emotion, and affect. During exercise, the brain grows specific neurons that release GABA, which is an anti-anxiety neurotransmitter that calms excitability in the brain. Essentially, by being physically active and creating an intentional flight-or-fight experience, the brain becomes trained to discern real threats from less-threatening stressors and therefore can better modulate its excitability. Another theory involves neuroplasticity in the central serotonin system in the brain, whereby exercise trains the brain to respond less dramatically to stressful stimuli.
Another theory involves the power of intentional “time outs” that we allow ourselves to enjoy while exercising. If you are under a deadline and tempted to multitask while exercising so you can reduce your stress, fit in a workout and still get your work done, think again. When exercise is done alone, it has been found to have a much more calming effect than when exercising while also working. Thus, part of its restorative effect may be due to having a chance for a mental break from your stress and obligations.
Does type of exercise matter?
While aerobic exercise has gained considerable attention for its stress-reducing benefits, a growing body of research now shows that mind-body movement practices, such as yoga and Tai Chi, also lead to marked improvements in stress and anxiety. This may explain the dramatic rise in interest in these modalities over the past two decades. A recent meta-analysis that compared yoga to active control conditions found that yoga improved physiological measures of stress, including reduced cortisol levels, blood pressure, and heart rate. The authors concluded: “practices that include yoga asanas appear to be associated with improved regulation of the sympathetic nervous system and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system in various populations.” In another review, yoga was also found to be effective for people with high levels of anxiety. It appears that both yoga and Tai Chi help improve heart rate variability (HRV), which is a measure of the autonomic nervous system - comprised of the sympathetic (“fight or flight”) and parasympathetic (“relaxation response”) nervous systems - that reflects the body’s ability to adapt to stressors. A high level of variation in time between heartbeats (i.e. a high HRV) is a sign of health because it shows that your body has a high level of resilience and flexibility. Mind-body movement practices may be effective due to the synergistic effect of diaphragmatic breathing and mindful awareness skills that are developed along with physical strength, flexibility and agility.
Conclusion - Get Moving
Movement is powerful medicine that can buffer stress and protect against stress-related disease. One large survey study found that adults who participate in leisure-time physical activity had about half the levels of perceived stress as adults who did not exercise. However, according to the annual Stress in America survey, conducted by the American Psychological Association, relatively few people take advantage of this powerful form of self-care. Even though exercise is a great form of stress relief, the same report found that only 17% of US adults report exercising daily. Why is that? Clearly, when we are stressed, it is hard to find the time to make movement a priority. The key is to be armed with information and to choose a movement practice that you love. Your movement practice should make you feel good, give you energy, and bring you joy. For you, this could mean dancing in your living room or taking a jog. To others, it could mean a brisk walk with a friend, a hike with your dog or that salsa class you’ve been meaning to try.
The bottom line: Get moving your way for at least 30 minutes a day and see how much more easily you handle the inevitable challenges of life. And if you feel too busy for 30 minutes a day...then aim for more. The less time you think you have to exercise, the more you probably really need it.