By Dr Catherine Allison, Osteopath.
Have you ever heard a friend say they exercise to relieve stress and wondered what on earth they are talking about? Not only can exercise help you get your mind off your problems and clear your head, exercise has been proven to reduce levels of circulating stress hormones at a biochemical level. So how does this work?
When your heart rate is accelerated, your body releases endorphins, 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. Exercise also reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. You don’t need to be a marathon runner or elite athlete to experience stress relief from exercise. Almost any kind of exercise can be helpful. Even a simple 20-minute stroll can clear the mind and reduce stress.
For many people, structured exercise is highly inconvenient (“one more thing to do”) during periods of greater stress. For those who view exercise as a disruption, an inconvenience or another demand on their time, it is not hard to see why exercise will decrease with stress. Therefore it is important that exercise becomes a part of your daily routine and isn’t an added extra to an already busy week. For some people this becomes easier by joining a social team sport or by incorporating “incidental exercise” into their routine eg walking to work or to the shops. These type of activities may reduce the likelihood of falling off the exercise wagon during times of acute stress.
So if exercise can reduce the levels of stress hormones, what happens to our ability to exercise when we are under increased stress? Exercise is perceived by the body as a form of stress and stimulates the release of cortisol. In general, the more your fitness improves the better the body becomes at dealing with physical stress. This means that less cortisol will be released during exercise and also in response to emotional or psychological stresses. High cortisol levels have been linked to tissue breakdown, reduced protein synthesis and decreased conversion of protein to glucose resulting in increased abdominal fat. Therefore finding the sweet spot between exercise when you are in a state of stress is essential to avoid burnout like symptoms. Generally speaking it is important to listen to your body, when you are feeling tired it is common to feel better after exercise, but if you are living off 2 hrs sleep a night and 5 coffees then perhaps it is a good idea to avoid the exercise and find some time for self care first.
Lastly, high stress levels have been correlated to cardiac disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. Studies increasingly show the importance of having physical activity in your daily routine for mental health and also for physical well being. If you don’t know where to start contact your doctor for a health check up first then come and meet on of our team who can help guide you through a return to exercise routine and help get you feeling happy and healthy in no time.
If you have more questions about how exercise may be able to help you or how to get more active touch base with Catherine via email (Catherine@bellarinesmc.com.au) or give the centre a call 03 5251 5724.