Reduce Stress With Exercise

People used to think stress-related health problems were "all in their heads." Now we know better. Stress is a mind/body event, and its physical effects are real. Excess stress can contribute to headaches, digestive problems, frequent colds and even heart disease.

How Much Stress Is Too Much?

It's easy to forget that the stress response, commonly known as the "fight-or-flight" response, has many benefits. It gives you strength and endurance to deal with emergencies, and it sharpens your wits during important events, such as taking a test or delivering a presentation. The stress response becomes harmful only when you get too much of it. Too much stress occurs when you don't make adequate time in your day to do the things you need or want to do. But, feeling wound up and "stressed out" does not appear to be too harmful as long as you unwind afterward. Stress becomes especially harmful when you feel it day after day, for a period of weeks or months. Stress is most likely to hurt your health when feeling stressed out becomes a chronic condition and you forget how to relax.

Aren't Some Types of Stress More Harmful Than Others?

Stress characterized by strong negative emotions such as anger and hostility is especially harmful. So are the feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that characterize depression. These negative emotional states are associated with "distress" and a higher incidence of stress-related illness.

How Can I Tell If Stress Is Causing My High Blood Pressure?

"I was recently diagnosed with high blood pressure. My doctor told me to take a stress management course, but I don't feel like I am stressed." This scenario is common. Stress may not be the most important "cause" of high blood pressure, but it can be a contributing factor. Most stress-related disorders, such as high blood pressure, are influenced by many factors, including genetic predisposition, age, body composition (fatness), diet, exercise and stress. Stress may be only one cause of high blood pressure, and its effect may be small or large.

Does Stress Management Help Control Blood Pressure?

Try it and see -- at least it won't hurt. Stress management workshops and classes are usually not expensive, and negative side effects are rare. Many people diagnosed with borderline high blood pressure find that regular physical activity helps normalize blood pressure and reduce feelings of stress.

Is Exercise An Effective Way To Manage Stress?

Exercise is a great way to reduce feelings of stress. Ask your friends who exercise why they stick to their programs. Many will tell you that it helps them relax and feel better. Exercise helps work through the fight-or-flight response your body has been gearing up for. After exercise, you feel more relaxed and even-tempered. Exercise may also reduce feelings of stress by providing a diversion from sources of stress, such as your job or family. If exercise is enjoyable, so much the better. Getting out and having fun helps reduce feelings of stress. And when you make yourself get out and exercise, you feel a sense of personal power and control that helps combat feelings of depression and anxiety.When feelings of stress arise, exercise alone may not be enough. A two-pronged approach yields the best result. The first prong is problem solving: defining the source of stress and then attempting to solve the problem, or at least adjusting your attitude so the problem is no longer stressful. The second prong is lifestyle, including regular physical activity.

What Other Lifestyle Factors Help Reduce Stress?

Many lifestyle factors mediate the health effects of stress. Some, such as smoking and excessive drinking, make stress and health worse. Others, such as a healthful diet and regular exercise, provide a buffer against the negative effects of stress. Adequate sleep, recreation, social support, and plenty of love and joy allow your body to recover from those negative sources of stress that inevitably arise.

By Barbara A. Brehm, Ed.D.

Barbara A. Brehm, is an Associate Professor of Exercise and Sport Studies at Smith College, Northampton, Mass.

© Fitness Management Magazine. Used by permission.