Both emotional and physical stress elicit the same physiological response; a cascade of hormones which are released into the bloodstream including adrenaline and cortisol. These in turn, drive up heart rate and blood pressure values, whilst also elevating blood glucose and triglycerides. Simply put, the body is preparing for physical activity. Commonly referred to as the “fight or flight” response, which enables the body to respond naturally when danger is perceived. In the past, this type of reaction would have been generated in response to a life threatening situation. For example, when a caveman was confronted by a tiger, this response would immediately mobilise the energy required to react to the situation. The question is, is this the type of response positive or rational whilst we are sat at work, watching a film or having a family meal out?
The short answer to that is no. If a stress response is maintained for a long period of time, it can increase an individual’s risk to a number of different lifestyle disease, such as cardiovascular disease and type II diabetes, as well as contributing to anxiety and stress.
So how can we best cope with the daily pressures and stresses that life throw at us? There are a number of different methods that can be used, such as mindfulness or meditation but this article is going to concentrate on the beneficial effect of exercise and how it can help reduce the stress response.
The first area of note is the hormonal response that exercise has. After any session, the brain will release a wave of hormones called endorphins, these are the pleasure hormones, often known as the “runners high”. These endorphins improve mood quality and can lower heart rate. At the same time, the exercise will lower stress levels, inducing hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. This combination of changes will alleviate feelings of stress.
The other area that can be positively impacted on by exercise is sleep quality. The changing nature of our jobs has led to many of us leading a sedentary life which can impact on the quality of sleep we experience. However, by increasing your quantity of vigorous exercise, you can increase feelings of fatigue and this will, in hand, help aid sleep quality. Improved sleep quality directly relates to improvements in mood and reduced feelings of stress.