How often do you feel stressed? According to the American Psychological Association most Americans suffer from moderate to high stress and 44% reported an increase in their stress levels over the past five years. Stress is defined as the disruption of the body’s homeostasis or a state of disharmony in response to a real or perceived threat or challenge. The perceived threat or challenge is what is referred to as the “stressor."
When someone encounters a stressor, they may notice physical changes such as their heart starting to beat faster. Along with this, perspiration may occur, muscles may become tense, mental alertness becomes more heightened, blood pressure will increase and the adrenal glands will secrete the stress hormone cortisol into the blood. This system has been in place in the human body for thousands of years and is more commonly known as the "fight or flight response." The body is preparing itself to deal with whatever activated the response. We now know that repeated activation of the stress response has effects on both our physical and psychological health. Chronic stress is associated with high blood pressure and changes in the brain that may contribute to anxiety and depression, and it promotes formation of artery-clogging deposits. Interestingly, intense physical activity can cause the same stress response to activate, however, rather than harming our bodies it can condition them to adapt and respond to stress more effectively.
Exercising releases endorphins, the body’s natural pain killer and mood booster. Although more research is required to understand the exact mechanisms in which endorphins combat stress, studies have found that people report feeling more calm after 20-30 minutes of aerobic exercise and the calming effect can last for several hours afterwards. In addition to the release of endorphins, regular exercise can increase your self-confidence, help you relax and improve your sleep, which can be disrupted by stress.
The Department of Health and Human Services recommends that adults should perform at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise each week and incorporate muscle strengthening exercises two times a week. The CDC conducted a study that analyzed data from 450,000 U.S. adults 18 and older who were asked how often they engaged in physical activity outside of their jobs and for how long. From this survey they were able to estimate that 80% of adults in America do not get the recommended amount of weekly exercise. Not only does not exercising affect your physical health, but it can also affect your mental health. So how can you move more to decrease stress?
If you are feeling stressed in your environment try going for a walk. Sitting at a desk all day can cause the muscles in your neck and chest to tense up. By getting into a walking posture you put those muscles to work and release the tension. While you are on your walk, shift your focus from what you are worried about to the natural environment around you and how it feels to move your body. A study by PNAS found that participants who walked through a natural environment had lower levels of rumination and reduced activity in the area of the brain linked to mental illness when compared to those who walked through an urban environment.
Stress has a negative impact on both our mental and physical health, which can lead to serious health issues over time. Engaging in exercise is not only beneficial for your physical health, but is also good for your mental health and coping with stress.
Learn more about ways to cope with stress and other wellness programs offered by Wellness Workdays.
Written by: Olivia Sellers, Wellness Workdays Dietetic Intern