Chronic stress can affect your health. An activity can help

These days, many people find it difficult to switch off. Inflation, global warming and gun violence are on the rise. Bullies proliferate on social media. The 24/7 news cycle constantly broadcasts distressing news, and people often face difficult personal or professional situations.

About half of Americans said they experienced stress in the past day, according to a Gallup Poll survey last October, a finding that was consistent through most of 2022. Personal finances and political and current events were major sources of stress for a third or more. more than adults, found a CNN poll in partnership with the Kaiser Family Foundation in October.

Stress isn’t inherently bad, said Richard Scrivener, personal trainer and product development manager at Trainfitness, a London-based edtech company. Stressing muscles through weight training, for example, leads to beneficial changes. Furthermore, short-term stress in healthy people is normally not a danger. “But if the stress is ongoing, especially in older or unhealthy people, the long-term effects of the stress response can lead to significant health problems,” Scrivener said.

Can stress make you sick?

Stress occurs when you’re faced with a new, unpredictable, or threatening situation, and you don’t know if you’ll be able to handle it successfully, said clinical psychologist Dr. Karmel Choi, an assistant professor in the Center for Precision Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts General. Boston Hospital.

When you are physically or emotionally stressed, your body goes into fight or flight mode. Cortisol rushes through your system, signaling your body to release glucose. Glucose, in turn, provides energy to your muscles so you’re better prepared to fight a threat or run away. During this cortisol rush, your heart rate may increase, your breathing may become rapid, and you may feel dizzy or nauseated.

If you really needed to fight or run from a predator, your cortisol levels would drop back down once the conflict was over. However, when you’re chronically stressed, those levels stay elevated.

Staying in that elevated state is not good as high cortisol levels can exacerbate health conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes and chronic gastrointestinal problems, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Stress can also cause or contribute to anxiety, irritability, lack of sleep, substance abuse, chronic mistrust or worry, and more.

How to relieve stress

Fortunately, there are many ways to combat stress. Maintain a daily routine, get plenty of sleep, eat healthy foods and limit your time following the news or engaging in social media, recommends the World Health Organization. It also helps to stay connected with others and employ calming practices like meditation and deep breathing. However, one of the most successful tools is physical activity.

“Exercise is remarkably effective in managing psychological stress,” Choi said. “Exercise doesn’t eliminate what’s causing stress, but it can improve mood, reduce tension and improve sleep, all of which are affected by stress, and ultimately this can help people to address their challenges in a more balanced way.

Numerous studies support the positive effect of exercise on stress. Physical activity, and especially exercise, significantly reduced anxiety symptoms in a study published in Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, for example. Similarly, a Frontiers in Psychology study of college students found that regularly engaging in low-to-moderate-intensity aerobic exercise for six weeks helped alleviate their depressive symptoms and perceived stress.

Move to release feel-good chemicals

The reason why exercise is so effective at crushing stress is quite simple. Exercise causes your body to produce more endorphins, which are neurotransmitters that improve your mood. Movement also combats elevated levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, while improving blood flow.

Jessica Honig, a clinical social worker in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, said that exercise empowers her clients because they realize that through movement, they hold the key to resetting and lowering their stress. “It’s also one of the best ways to pause — to break or revive the energy of an unproductive, spiraling mindset,” she said.

What types of exercise are the best? While studies show that aerobic exercise, such as swimming, running, dancing, and boxing, may be the most effective in getting mood-boosting endorphins racing throughout the body, gentler forms of physical activity also work. . Think yoga, strength training, and walking. Also, sometimes less is more.

“What we’re seeing from the data,” Choi said, “is that you actually need to move less than the recommended guidelines to see positive effects on mood.”

Since stress loads can change weekly or even daily, Scrivener said it can help to modify your exercise based on your mood. Do you feel like a happy 8 on a scale of 1 to 10? Then go for a run. Just hitting a 3? Opt for something soft. “This could be a 15-minute stretch followed by a light cycle for 15 minutes, or a 30-minute bath followed by a sauna session,” he said.

Make exercise a social activity.

Since social engagement is a powerful protective factor for positive mental health, Choi encourages exercising with others. Studies have also shown that being in nature improves her mood, so exercising outside with friends can provide even more benefits.

Scientists continue to study the link between stress and physical activity. A recently published small study found that the combination of mindfulness and physical activity can improve sleep and help regulate emotions more than alone, Choi said. She also cautioned that people should be careful not to overdo exercise or rely solely on it to deal with challenges. Doing so can backfire and create more stress.

It’s also important to remember that humans are wired to release stress physically, no matter what their age, said Honig, the social worker. “We see in children the permission to throw their bodies on pillows to release intense emotions,” she said. “We do not overcome the need to physically release stress. We simply lose the outlets and the social normalization of it.”

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