Stress is an unavoidable part of life. But each of us may have more control of how our bodies respond to stress than was formerly believed.
Research suggests that exercise can do more than just relieve existing stress. It may also help train your body to handle future stress.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 7 out of 10 adults in the United States report that they experience stress every day. People use many methods to deal with stress.
One of the top recommendations from health care professionals is exercise. Other methods to help restore calm include interacting with friends and family, sleeping and listening to music.
But exercise may offer more benefits than just helping us recover after stress. The American Psychological Association says that exercise may also help the brain learn to cope better with stress.
Research shows that people who are physically active have less anxiety and depression than people who are not active.
Some researchers believe physical exercise also acts as exercise for the systems in the body that cope with stress, including the cardiovascular systems and the central and sympathetic nervous systems.
These and other systems in the body jump into action when we are stressed. But how efficiently they communicate with each other when we are stressed may partly depend on how much practice they’ve had.
Some scientists believe that we can help train the sympathetic nervous system to react appropriately to stress instead of over-reacting, and to relax more quickly once the source of stress is gone.
These researchers believe that exercise can be an appropriate source of stress for this kind of training. Exercise is considered to be stress because it demands increased effort from the heart, muscles and other body systems similar to the body’s “fight-or-flight” stress reaction.
To test this idea, researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany studied a small group of students for 20 weeks leading up to their final exams.
Of the 60 students in the study, half participated in an exercise program of walking or running for 30 to 60 minutes twice a week. The other half did not exercise. The 20 weeks of exercise ended just before the students took their exams.
The researchers tracked the heart rate variability (HRV) for each of the 60 students.
HRV measures the pattern of heartbeats including how fast or slow the heart is beating, and the time between beats, as well as the electrical impulses that trigger the heart to beat. HRV was measured for 36 hours during the students’ exams.
The results of the study showed that the students who exercised had a lower response to the real-life stress incurred due to taking exams, compared to the students who did not exercise.
None of us can completely eliminate stress from our lives. Ongoing research suggests that exercising on a regular basis can help your body handle stress better.
In effect, exercise can help train your body to react in the most efficient and effective ways when stress occurs.
If you have questions about stress or exercise, or if you are thinking about starting a new exercise program, talk to your health care provider.