Using Exercise to Manage Stress

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We all have stress.  It’s a fact of life.  And it’s a good thing that we all have some stress.  Imagine a world with no stress at all.  When our kids cry, we might not respond.  When a term paper is due in to your teacher, you might not get it done in time.  And when your wife calls that she is ready and please come pick her up with the car, she might just be standing outside in the rain for a while.  Your boss might get upset with you because you don’t turn in your work to him on time. So we need to have some stress in order to accomplish important daily tasks.  It’s when stress become excessive that we can get into trouble.  Constant extreme stress damages our mental and physical health and must be dealt with. 

Yonatan is a client of mine who is 45 years old.  He runs a large company and although not the owner, the day to day responsibilities are his.  He has to answer to the ownership and must submit a comprehensive report to them monthly on profits, losses, revenue and what future projects are in the pipeline. He has been trying to lose weight and work on his stress levels.  One of the main reason he hasn’t been successful in his weight loss attempts in the past has been his stress.  His stress is on such an intense and consistent level that he has developed a metabolic cascade which isn’t letting his body’s metabolism function correctly, and therefore, all his efforts in weight loss are only bringing small results.

What is Stress?

Stress is the normal physical response to a threat.  It is based on what we call fight or flight otherwise known as the acute stress response.  Essentially, the response prepares the body to either fight or flee the threat. It is also important to note that the response can be triggered due to both real and imaginary threats. Imagine yourself driving along a road near your house. Suddenly a car zooms out of nowhere. You slam on the brakes just in time to avoid an accident. That’s the stress response at its best. You suddenly become extra-alert, energetic, and focused.

But what happens when stress is constant?  Stress, when excessive can be debilitating.  It can make you exhausted, and it can cause serious health issues.  Most stress experts now agree that roughly 85% of all illness and disease in the United States is stress induced or stress exacerbated.  What are some symptoms of stress?

• Pain of any kind • Heart disease • Digestive problems • Sleep problems • Depression • Obesity
• Autoimmune diseases • Skin conditions

Although we commonly think of either medication or talk therapy as the best treatments for stress, research over the past 20 years has demonstrated that exercise, when done consistently may be one of the best treatments for stress

Exercise as a Prime Treatment

Numerous studies in 2011 and 2012 showed that exercise has shown tremendous promise as a neuroprotective intervention.  Exercise protects our brains from stress in several ways.  When we exercise (and the more intense we can exercise the better the result) we increase something called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which maintains brain health.  Not only does exercise give us more BDNF, it also triggers the brain’s self-repair processes.  And last, exercise also activates the brain’s self-calming system by releasing a neurotransmitter called GABA ((gamma-Aminobutyric acid) in order to restore balance in the autonomic nervous system.  Perhaps the most encouraging research is that for someone who makes exercise a part of his or her life, exercise can create a STRESS RESISTANT BRAIN! (Fleshner et. al. 2011). 

The question is how much does one need to exercise and at what intensity?  As previously stated, intense exercise is good, but intense exercise for a prolonged period of time is not good for our cardiovascular system, our immune system or our brains.  So it seems that moderate exercise for less than an hour at a time brings great results and intense exercise in shorter bouts can also help change your neuropathways. 

Good for Depression too!

Remember that exercise in all of its forms, aerobic and resistance training does help us manufacture more of the feel-good neurotransmitters in our brains, serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine.  These are the same hormones that anti-depressant medications work on.  The now famous SMILE (Standard Medical Intervention and Long-term Exercise) study at Duke University in 1999 the researchers followed 156 patients between the ages of 50 and 77 who had been diagnosed with major depressive disorder (MDD). They were randomly assigned to one of three groups: exercise, medication or a combination of medication and exercise.

The exercise group spent 30 minutes either riding a stationary bicycle or walking or jogging three times a week. The anti-depressant used by the medication group was sertraline (trade name Zoloft), which is a member of a class of commonly used anti-depressants known as selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors.  To the surprise of the researchers, after 16 weeks, all three groups showed statistically significant and identical improvement in standard measurements of depression, implying that exercise is just as effective as medication in treating major depression and it doesn’t have the negative side effects of the various medications.  Exercise exceeded the other two treatments on follow up results proving that exercise works better for long-term sustained results.

Counter Intuitive

Stress and exercise go both ways! Greater stress is associated with less physical activity, and less physical activity is associated with greater stress.  So here the very thing that can help your stress is something that you don’t want to do when stressed.

Stress can be measured via objective means, for example, in terms of number of daily stressors or stressful life events like divorce or death of a loved one. Or it can be measured subjectively, in terms of general perceived stress. Both measures result in lower rates of physical activity. One review of several studies showed that physical activity is lower in times of acute stress and among people who experience chronic stress.  They also found that the relationship between stress and exercise appears to differ based on one’s regular exercise habit, such that those who are regular exercisers show higher levels of exercise during stressful periods, while those who are not regular exercisers show lower levels of exercise during stressful periods.  This could be a result of certain people having a predisposition to experience stress reduction from exercise, or perhaps that stress reduction is not experienced until a person achieves a certain level of exercise. Regardless, not everyone will have poor adherence to exercise in the presence of stress. 

Metabolic Cascade

As we mentioned earlier, Yonatan’s chronic stress had him develop a metabolic cascade.  In this situation, stress acts as a trigger to interrupt the processes of normal cellular function.  In other words, the stress cascade is responsible for allowing the body to make the necessary physiological and metabolic changes required to cope with the demands of normal function in times of stress, until it is overloaded.  When in this state, weight loss becomes difficult and the likelihood of illness can increase.

We started Yonatan on an exercise program that gradually increased in intensity.  In addition, we began meeting weekly for coaching in order to help him work through his stresses and problem solve several aspects of his responsibilities in his work place.  After 6 weeks, there were noticeable changes in Yonatan.    He began to lose weight at a faster pace of about a pound a week and he was so much more relaxed.  Even his wife called me to tell me how their home had become a more relaxed place. 

We live in a stress-filled society.  The difficulties on us financially, keeping our relationships sound, raising our children and meeting the daily demands of working and learning can take their toll.  But if we take the proper steps to manage our stress and make sure we use exercise in that realm, we will “add hours to our day, days to your year and years to our life”. 

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.