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How does exercise help with the management of stress?

By Sandra Langton, Langton Physiotherapy

Stress is a normal human response to challenging or dangerous situations. When there is a perceived threat, the “fight or flight” response can be triggered to get the body ready to act against the potential danger. This can result in hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol being released, causing the heart rate, metabolism and breathing rate to speed up. This has short term benefits, but if the stress response goes on for too long, it can have damaging effects on the mind and body. If stress is greater than our ability to cope, it can lead to physical and mental health issues.

The physical signs of stress include:
• headaches
• other aches and pains
• sleep disturbance
• fatigue
• upset stomach, diarrhoea
• high blood pressure
• weakened immune system
• muscle tension
• change in sex drive (male or female)

Exercise can produce similar physiological stresses to exercise. Exercise requires effort, and it forces the body to adapt to the demands placed on it. This sort of regular, planned stress may help your body be better at handling stress more generally. Studies have shown that individuals who have exercised have less physical and psychological reactions to a stressor than individuals who don’t exercise.

In addition, the mental benefits of aerobic exercise have an effect on the chemicals in the neural system. Exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, which chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators. Endorphins are responsible for the “runner’s high” and for the feelings of relaxation and optimism that accompany many hard workouts. This also improves the ability to sleep, which in turn reduces stress.

Exercise is also considered vital for maintaining mental fitness, and it can reduce stress. Studies show that exercise is very effective at reducing fatigue, improving alertness and concentration, and at enhancing overall cognitive function. This can be especially helpful when stress has depleted your energy or ability to concentrate.
Exercise and sports also provide opportunities to get away from it all and to either enjoy some solitude or to make friends and build networks. “All men,” wrote St. Thomas Aquinas, “need leisure.” Exercise is play and recreation; when your body is busy, your mind will be distracted from the worries of daily life and will be free to think creatively.

Stress can cause muscle tension. This can then cause things such as headache, jaw pain, aching muscles and joints. Specific exercise such as Yoga, Pilates and stretching assists with muscle relaxation, and helps relieve pain from muscle tension.

If you require assistance with commencing a safe exercise program, please consult your physiotherapist or exercise physiologist.

A psychologist can assist you with dealing with your stress, and also advise you of other strategies to help.

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