Imagine any average day. You wake up, especially tired because you haven’t been sleeping well all week, perhaps grab your daily cup of coffee, head off to work in the middle of rush-hour, try to complete several projects that are due by the end of the week, and so on. Then again, in between each of those minor events you experience varying levels of stress and anxiety. Nonetheless, you are in company because according to the National Health Interview Survey, 75% of the American population undergoes at least some stress every couple of weeks. A study several years ago estimated that around 11 million Americans suffer from unhealthy levels of stress at work, and, unfortunately, today that number has more than tripled (http://www.stresscure.com/hrn/facts.html). Muscles tensing up, feeling short of breath and fast heartbeats are all indications of stress; which apparently many Americans experience daily. To release the strain, numerous people look to exercise as a way of “venting” or in other words, letting go of those feelings of tension. However, to best understand the reasons for exercise as a helpful outlet of stress, one must understand exactly what stress is, what causes it, how it effects the body, how to manage it, and then ways of establishing and motivating oneself to participate in frequent physical activity.
Stress is the body’s adaptive response to irregular changes that can either be short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic). It is an inevitable part of life for most everyone, however, it can be both beneficial and detrimental depending on the intensity and the nature of the stress. Life void of any stress would basically be dull and monotonous, but at the same time, life with too much stress becomes unpleasant and extremely tedious (http://www.shpm.com/articles/stress/stress.html).
The “fight or flight” response is the common reaction to immediate threats or instances of acute stress such as any situation that is experienced as a danger (i.e. crowding, isolation, hunger, infection and noise).
Daily life generates long-term types of stress such as difficult work, personal situations, relationship problems, financial worries, constant deadlines, and anxiety about uncontrollable, approaching events. One study even suggested that overwhelming stress was to blame for an increased incidence of death in a spouse whose partner had died within the previous six months (http://content.health.msn.com/content/dmk/dmk_article_40082). Large amounts of stress can damage the entire body leading to physical and mental fatigue and perhaps illness (Mind Tools - Effective Stress Management - Understanding Stress). Chronic stress over long periods of time can lead to several problems, such as severe melancholic depression, which is linked to stress-inducing anxiety, post-traumatic disorder, produced by traumatic situations, ulcers, high blood pressure, heart disease and immune system and health problems (http://www.shpm.com/articles/stress/stress.html).
Nevertheless, through basic body responses, the body attempts to deal with the unavoidable effects of stress. In the “fight or flight” response, when the human body perceives danger, virtually all the systems---the heart and blood vessels, the immune system, the lungs, the digestive system, the sensory organs and brain---modify themselves (http://content.health.msn.com/content/dmk/dmk_article_40082). Most importantly, the sympathetic nervous system responds to emergencies and stressful or emotional situations. With the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, the body is immediately prepared for intense motor activity by increasing the rate and strength of cardiac contraction, increasing respiration, stimulating the sweat glands, constricting the blood vessels and dilating the pupils. Initially, stress induces the pituitary gland to secrete the adrenocortiocotropic hormone (ACTH), in turn, stimulating the adrenal glands to secrete glucocortiods, including cortisol, and raising the body’s blood sugar level to provide energy to the cells. Cortisol has an anti-inflammatory effect and is actually an indicator of the level of stress in the body. Also, catecholamines, including norepinephrine and epinephrine, are secreted as a result of the activation of the adrenal medulla. The amount of epinephrine (often referred to as adrenaline) in the body, like cortisol, can be observed to measure stress. While these body processes are helpful in acute instances of stress, over the long period of chronic stress, studies have indicated a relationship between the sympathetic nervous system and the immune system where perhaps stress can actually suppress the body’s immune system (Brannon & Feist, 2000).
Recognizing and managing stress is detrimental to staying healthy and dealing with the widely shared hindrance of chronic stress. The primary step in coping with stress is to identify the specific stressors in one’s life. What may stress out one person may not stress out another. For instance, when one individual has to always be in control versus another individual who goes more with the flow, as soon as something out of the ordinary happens, the controlling person will be much more impacted and stressed out by the event than the other person. Essentially, it all depends on the person. Personality greatly determines how vulnerable someone is to stress. Generally, the Type A person, someone who is aggressive, fast-paced, and angry, is negatively stressed. While those who are optimistic, confident in themselves and self-assured are much less vulnerable to the destructive effects of stress (http://content.health.msn.com/content/dmk/dmk_article_40082). A study was conducted examining the relation between catecholamine and cortisol (hormones excreted during the stress response) excretion and Type A behavior, and the results indicated that only certain types of the Type A syndrome are related to stress processes and point to differing behaviors serve to lower stress responses (Karlberg, J., Karlberg, P., Klackenberg-Larsson, Lambert and MacEvoy, 1987). Additionally, as a general rule: “people who have less of a need to be in control of their environment tend to experience less stress” (http://www.shpm.com/articles/stress/stress.html).
Those seriously affected by stress should be conscious of the common signs and symptoms of stress, which are insomnia, digestive problems, irritability, headache and undue fatigue. Stress can lead to habits like smoking, drinking, overeating and drug abuse, while at the same time, some old habits may begin to reoccur, such as nail biting and hair twirling. But the American Heart Association poses that the key to overwhelming stress is to manage it properly, because all too many times, neglecting to manage it leads to serious health problems (http://www.americanheart.org/Patient_Information/gmgstress.html). Notably, a significant number of people suffering from stress are not even aware of it because they assume the feeling to be normal (http://www.shpm.com/articles/stress/stress.html). Identifying the existence of stress or anxiety is the primary step to overcoming it.
Changing attitude, modifying diet, joining support systems and practices of relaxation are just a few methods for reducing stress, but exercise can be considered one of the greatest alleviators of stress. Exercise has numerous positive benefits in that it improves blood flow to the brain, bringing additional sugars and oxygen, which are particularly needed when thinking intensely. And when thinking severely, the neurons of the brain function more intensely generating a toxic waste build up that causes foggy thinking in the short term, and can damage the brain in the long term. Exercising, as a result, accelerates the flow of blood through the brain, moving those waste products faster (http://188.8.131.52/mindtool/smexerc.html). Exercising via brief periods of intense training or prolonged aerobic workouts can cause a release of endorphins in the blood stream, which produce feelings of pleasure and well-being. Exercise promotes this sense of well-being by enhancing ego strength, dissipating anger and hostility, relieving boredom, and resolving frustration. One may think that exercise decreases energy, but instead, exercise actually enhances one’s energy and has a surprisingly relaxing effect (http://www.altabates.com/housecalls/searchcalls.cgi?title=Stress+and+Exercise).
In the article, “Exercise Can Help Control Stress”, The American Council on Exercise presents four very important and summarizing ways that exercise controls stress.
1) Exercise can help you feel less anxious. They found that exercise has been prescribed in clinical settings to treat nervous tension, and clinicians ultimately found that people have been less jittery and hyperactive after one session of exercise.
2) Exercise relaxes you. One exercise session generates 90 to 120 minutes of relaxation response, indicating a post-exercise euphoria or endorphin response. Not only are endorphins involved, but also, neurotransmitters that both enhance your mood and leave you relaxed.
3) Exercise can make you feel better about yourself.
4) Exercise can make you eat better. Moreover, good nutrition helps your body manage stress better (http://www.acefitness.com/fitfacts/fitfacts_display.cfm?ItemID=51).
On the website, Stress Less, Inc., an article entitled “Perceptions of Physical Fitness” poses the idea that believing one is physically fit is associated with feeling stress free. The site states that various studies have been conducted to prove this hypothesis correct. Researchers from Santa Clara University and the Stanford University School of Medicine recently performed an experiment using two groups of people; one of the groups was engaged in the stressful activity of reading the names of colors printed with ink of a different color while the other group was involved in giving a brief speech. Before, during, and after the demanding tasks, pulse rate and blood pressure were taken, and the participants answered various questionnaires measuring calmness, anxiety, depression, self-esteem and perceived physical fitness. The results demonstrated that higher levels of perceived physical fitness were linked with less anxiety, less depression, and higher self-esteem, and this perceived physical fitness was associated with changes in systolic blood pressure and calmness during the course of the stress tasks. Consequently, the study suggests for those suffering from stress to not only make sure that they are exercising, but also, to check whether or not they believe themselves “physically fit” (http://www.stressless.com/news/index.cfm).
If exercise ever becomes strenuous or repetitive, it could be a danger or even a hazard to one’s health, therefore, in order to keep the stress levels at a minimum, it is fundamental to choose an enjoyable form of exercise, to know how much of it to do and to learn to stay motivated. Because the whole goal is to reduce stress, selecting pleasurable and varied types of physical activity are most beneficial and easier to stick to.
Essential to reducing stress is getting involved with aerobic exercise, not anaerobic, such as weight training or stretching; aerobic exercise causes the heart to beat faster, generating more circulation of blood. While brisk walking is one of the easiest forms of aerobic exercise, signing up for aerobics at the gym prompts frequent, cardiovascular physical activity. Ideal for pregnant women, individuals with musculoskeletal problems and elderly people, swimming is heart-healthy and easy on joints and muscles. Racquet sports such as tennis and racquetball are fun activities and can be played socially with a few friends. Recent trends have been Yoga or Tai Chi which can be effective in that they combine many of the benefits of meditation, muscle relaxation and breathing while toning and stretching the muscles (http://content.health.msn.com/content/dmk/dmk_article_40082).
The American Heart Association recommends working out for at least 30 minutes a day, three or four times a week, but they further suggest exercising more than five times weekly for 10 to 24 minutes each session. While one half of all people who start a vigorous training regime drop out within a year, the key is to find exciting and challenging activities that keep exercise appealing (http://webmd.lycos.com/content/dmk/dmk_article_40034). To maintain an exercise routine, the website Thrive Online suggests to start an individualized program and decide on a specific time, type, frequency, and level of physical activity (Stress management ThriveOnline ). However, many people make excuses. So many that more than 60% of adults don’t get the recommended amount of regular physical activity, and even worse, 25% of adults aren’t active at all. The common excuses that unmotivated adults make are “I don’t have time”, “I did it once and it hurt”, “I get bored” or even “I’m so uncoordinated, I couldn’t possibly do that.” Not only does exercise reduce stress and better mental well-being, but most importantly, it keeps people from illness, disease and even death (What's Your Excuse?). Getting involved in a consistent personalized exercise routine and staying motivated will surely aid in lowering the tension caused by daily stress.
In a study researching the relationship between stress-induced cortisol and women with central fat, scientists found that women with central fat distribution (or those with a high waist-to-hip ratio [WHR]) may have a greater psychological vulnerability to stress and cortisol reactivity. As a result of the experiment, women with a high WHR responded to stressors by secreting more cortisol than women with a low WHR, and as a result, these women could be at risk for conditions such as hyperlipidemia, hypertension, coronary heart disease, stroke and diabetes mellitus, all illnesses related to extreme amounts of stress (Epel, McEwen, Seeman, Matthews, Castellazzo, Brownell, Bell, and Ickovics, 2000).
In response to the preceding study, a study was conducted to reduce weight and, consequently, lower high blood pressure among those with hypertension through physical activity. Because of the body’s stress response, and especially in the condition of hypertension, in which the blood vessels constrict and cardiac contraction increases, blood pressure, as a result, increases. The results of this study established that even though mere exercise was effective in lowering blood pressure, a behavioral weight loss program was necessary in that it boosted this effect (Appelbaum, Babyak, Blumenthal, Craighead, Feinglos, Georgiades, Gullette, Hayano, Hinderliter, Sherwood, Tweedy, and Waugh, 2000). Another study conducted at Duke University sought to determine the effects of exercise and weight loss on cardiovascular responses during mental stress on ninety-nine somewhat overweight men and women with high blood pressure. These subjects underwent a variety of mental stress tests and were randomly assigned to either aerobic exercise, weight management combining exercise with a weight loss program, or a waiting list control group. The patients in the weight management group combining aerobic exercise with a weight loss program lowered their blood pressure the most during mental stress (Babyak, Bloomer, Blumenthal, Craighead, Georgiades, Gullette, Hinderliter, Sherwood, Tweedy and Waugh, 2000). In conclusion to these previous studies on blood pressure and cortisol, exercise combined with weight loss aids in managing the level of cortisol and blood pressure in stressed, and perhaps, overweight individuals.
On 135 college students, a study was conducted to examine the buffering effects of leisure physical activity and aerobic fitness on minor stress. Findings suggested that leisure activity was a buffering effect against physical symptoms and anxiety connected with minor stress, however, in this individual study the same was not found with aerobic fitness. Therefore, the data suggested that participation in a leisurely activity as opposed to one of aerobic fitness is valuable to the stress-buffering effect of exercise (Amaral-Melendez, M., Boudreaux, E., Brantley, P.J., Carmack, C.L., and de Moor, C., 1999).
Unfortunately, there is no concrete, conclusive evidence linking the direct relationship that exercise reduces the harmful effects of stress on the body. However, many studies have been conducted that research this relationship. In a study conducted by Roth and Holmes (1985), 112 subjects reported stressful changes in their life for 12 months and their level of fitness was assessed. Those in particular with a low level of fitness revealed a high level of life stress all through the previous year, which was related to poorer physical health. However, the stressful events of those with higher levels of fitness had little impact on their health. In a study of adolescent girls, those engaged in frequent exercise were significantly less affected by stress-induced disturbances than those who reported infrequent exercise, where stress had debilitating effects on both physical and emotional health (Brown and Lawton, 1986). Also, in a longitudinal study of stress and well being in adolescence, Brown and Siegel (1988) found that the detrimental impact of stressful life events on health dropped as exercise levels escalated. Consequently, the conclusions from these studies would suggest that exercise and an increased fitness level help to diminish the effects of inevitable stress and aid in moderating the stress-illness relationship.
In the present day, stress hinders our society; it is more widespread than it has ever been. Because of advancing technology and a fast-paced world, everyone appears to always be doing something, never taking time out for him or herself. Pressure and stress are the by-products of the hurriedness of this American culture. Our money-oriented society convinces countless individuals to think that he or she needs to be exceptionally fit, the best looking and, by far, the most successful. In particular, the U.S. Public Health Service and the American Heart Association have recognized the surmounting stress that accrues from these unrealistic standards, and have taken action. The U.S. Public Health Service “has made reducing stress by the year 2000 one of its major health promotion goals” (http://www.stresscure.com/hrn/facts.html), while the American Heart Association has stretched to countless measures aiming to inform the public of the importance of exercise in reducing the negative consequences of stress.
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