Nutrition and dietetics research: Effects of exercise on stress

By: Elizabeth Harting

70 percent of adults in the United States say they experience stress daily and many even admit that this stress interferes with their ordinary life (“Physical Activity Reduces Stress,” n.d.). With that being said, it is clear that stress makes a pretty large impact on the average person’s daily life. Consequently, it is important for individuals to learn about stress as well as the positive ways in which to cope with it. There are many ways for one to deal with stress, however, exercise is proven to be an especially helpful and universal coping mechanism. This article will go over some of the causes and effects of stress, positive effects of exercise on stress, and how one should exercise to best cope.

To start, it is import to know the causes and effects of stress before understanding how it can be remedied. The causes of mental strain are not only endless but also depend on what demographic one is apart of. For example, a college-aged student may be nervous about upcoming tests, an unknown future, drama with friends, or how they are going to afford college. While an adult who is out of work might be worried about how they are going to put food on the table for their family, where to find a job, or maybe even where to live.

These different stressors can lead to a plethora of symptoms. In fact, a study done at Harvard University found that the major results of stress are mental symptoms that intensify and lead to physical strain. Mental symptoms range from restlessness and insomnia, to worry, panic, and even hostility. While some resulting physical problems include tense muscles, fidgetiness, headaches, neck or back pain rapid breathing leading to excessive sighing or coughing, lightheadedness, frequent urination and pale and clammy skin (“Exercising to relax,” 2011).  The negative effects stress has on the brain cannot be forgotten either, especially when it comes to the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and hippocampus. Though the effects of acute stress appear to be reversible in these regions, chronic stress may cause irreversible effects on the morphological and chemical makeup of the brain (McEwin, 2008).

It is clear that mental strain is neither enjoyable nor healthy for people, which is why exercise is so important. Not only can exercise reduce fatigue, improve one’s mood, help with weight loss, strengthen bones and muscles, increase energy levels, and reduce risk of chronic disease (Semeco, 2017); exercise also has many positive effects when it comes to stress.

Many of these benefits revolve around a chemical basis. In fact, according to Harvard Health, “exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol.” It also stimulates the production of endorphins, which play a role in making a person feel more relaxed and optimistic (“Exercising to relax,” 2011).  Some of types of exercises, according to the Harvard Health article, that best accomplish this are ones that focus on large muscle groups as well as autoregulation and breathing.

If one is placing emphasis on large muscle groups, it is not enough to just use the muscles. In fact, one supposed to do workouts that have a repetitive rhythm; good examples of this would be walking or jogging. Another form of exercise that has proven to be very helpful at combating stress is autoregulation, which involves consciously using one’s mind to relax their body while doing any particular workout. This helps a person to gain better control of their emotions as well as calm down. Lastly, breathing exercises can be very helpful in reducing stress, especially when they include controlled breathing paired with gentle muscle strengthening or stretching (“Exercising to relax,” 2011).

Stress is not healthy or enjoyable, but when one uses exercise, especially the recommended forms, daily stressors can be made much less overwhelming. I hope that by learning about how harmful stress can be and the beneficial ways in which to cope with its effects, readers will be able to feel more in control of their mental state when it comes to stress.

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