When deadlines loom and the daily schedule gets overwhelming, adding a walk to the day or scheduling a Zumba class may be the last thing people think of to handle stress, but research has proven that exercise can help to reduce overall stress levels. How does it work?
Consistent, moderate exercise helps regulate cortisol, promotes the production of key hormones in the brain, and may help activate a gene that actually makes you smarter.
Recommending exercise for stressed-out people may seem counterintuitive on one hand, as exercise does temporarily increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol. However, that same hormone plunges directly after exercise. This is the normal way the body behaves in stressful situations. Chronically stressed people don’t have that natural dip in cortisol, but exercise helps them jump-start that response. Some research indicates that exercise should be completed in the morning, when stress levels are naturally already at their highest of the day. With consistent exercise, the body is able to fall back into this natural response to stress.
Another hormone that exercise releases is norepinephrine, the hormone that contributes to elevated mood and learning centers of the brain. Stress can dull thinking and dull affect, and norepinephrine helps to sharpen the mind and improve cognitive function.
In addition to re-setting the hormonal functions of the body, exercise increases the body’s communication. The body is made up of systems, all of which interact in various ways with varying levels of efficiency. Exercise forces all of these systems to work more closely, intensely and effectively. According to the American Psychological Association:
[Exercise] forces the body’s physiological systems — all of which are involved in the stress response — to communicate much more closely than usual: The cardiovascular system communicates with the renal system, which communicates with the muscular system. And all of these are controlled by the central and sympathetic nervous systems, which also must communicate with each other. This workout of the body’s communication system may be the true value of exercise; the more sedentary we get, the less efficient our bodies in responding to stress.
This enhanced communication among systems of the body seems to translate into better communication overall after exercising.
Mentally, stress makes your hippocampus flabby. The hippocampus is responsible for memory-related tasks, which is why stressed-out people may seem forgetful or distracted. Exercise kicks the hippocampus back into gear by simply raising your heartbeat. Some of this benefit may even be genetic. In about 60% of the population study, researchers found that exercise activated the gene that floods cells with brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that may help with learning and memory.
An encouraging part to this is that exercise is available to everyone. It need not be intense and vigorous. You don’t need to run for miles, lift 100 pounds over your head repeatedly, or strain through 50 burpees. The best way to reap the stress-reducing benefits of exercise is to exercise moderately every day. Recommended levels are 30 minutes daily for adults, with 60 minutes daily for kids. Walking, hiking, swimming, gardening, and yoga all count as exercise and will help to reduce stress.
How much physical activity do you get daily, and how can you add more?
Image by Mike Baird via Flickr