Stress is the body’s natural response to unpleasant events. Stress is a physiological change that affects everyone in similar, predictable ways. However, different events (stressors) may trigger stress in different people. For example, extreme temperatures, challenging workloads, emotional or physical pain, arguments and public speaking may be stressful. Stress is the body’s natural, adaptive, reaction. Yet, in large doses stress can be maladaptive
Short-lived stress may be helpful for short-term difficulties. The typical evolutionary argument is that stress helps us by pumping hormones into the bloodstream which increase one’s physical abilities and endurance to outrun predators. However, stress can also be helpful in modern situations. Some people say they “work well under stress”. This is because stress pushes the body away from homeostasis, the body’s resting state.
When stress pushes the body away from homeostasis, it makes us more vigilant, alert and energized. However, it also makes the heart pump faster, increases blood pressure and suppresses the immune system. Short-term stress may be helpful, but long-term stress can be extremely harmful. Long-term stress can cause ulcers, heart disease and even brain damage.
Unfortunately, one can’t always remove sources of stress. Yet, it is possible to combat the effects of stress. Exercise is an extremely effective way to mitigate the effects of stress. This may seem counterintuitive, because stress and exercise have similar effects on the body. Both move the body away from homeostasis (resting) into an excitatory state.
The main difference between stress and exercise is the aftereffects. Once the body is exhausted from exercising, it moves back toward homeostasis and then to an even more relaxed state. This counteracts the physiologically aroused state of stress. Exercise first stimulates the body. After this stimulation from exercising, exhaustion essentially pushes the body to relax, then forces the symptoms of stress out of the body.
This enhances health because stress affects the brain as much as the body. Prolonged stress results in the body releasing hormones called glucocorticoids. Glucocorticoids damage an important structure in the brain called the hippocampus. The hippocampus is important for learning and memory. Exposure to glucocorticoids can lead to death of cells, and impede the development of new cells (stem cells), in the hippocampus.
Conversely, research has shown exercise promotes the development of stem cells in the brain. Thus, exercise mitigates the effects of stress while assisting the neurological components of learning and memory. Exercise has also been found to improve mental health and mitigate depression.
Ideally, to improve health one would remove all sources of stress. However, many necessary everyday activities can cause stress. Work, friends, grocery shopping and one’s own health are only a few examples. Interestingly, situations with friends and relationships can be a central source of satisfaction, happiness and fulfillment in one’s life. Yet, at times these can also be extremely stressful. It may not be desirable to remove the sources of stress (since that would involve completely isolating oneself which, paradoxically, could be extremely stressful). However the human body is very powerful and adaptable. Regular exercise is an effective method of combating stress and its negative effects.
Fortunately, exercise is available to everyone, everywhere. Running, walking, weight training, team sports, yoga, dance and cycling are only a few examples of exercise. It may be difficult to become motivated to exercise. However the benefits are profound; and once the positive effects of exercise begin, it can become a healthy, addictive habit.
de Kloet, Joels & Holsboer (2005) Stress and the brain: From adaptation to disease.
Lawlor & Hopker (2001) The effectiveness of exercise as an intervention in the management of depression: Systematic review and meta-regression analysis of randomized controlled trials.
Robles, Glaser & Kiecolt-Glaser (2005) Out of balance: A new look at chronic stress, depression, and immunity.