The physical and emotional demands of life often lead to high levels of stress. A stressful situation at work, a divorce or separation, a death in the family or a diagnosis of a serious health problem may lead us to fall into poor eating habits or give up on exercise, making it even more difficult to cope with the challenges of life.
During challenging times, some of us might even start or resume destructive habits like smoking, drinking too much alcohol or taking drugs. Yet, such physical or emotional problems are the very situations where maintaining healthy habits, especially exercise, can be the perfect prescription for what ails you, particularly for high levels of stress.
Conclusive research shows that 150 minutes of exercise per week — about a half hour five days per week — reduces stress by lowering blood pressure, relieving muscle tension and improving mood and concentration. Someone who is physically active has more vigor and is better able to tolerate fatigue, another factor that contributes to stress.
Despite these proven rewards, many health care providers fail to recommend exercise as a first-line treatment for stress. Too often, stressed patients are offered medications instead. Yet, in many cases, increasing one’s level of physical activity can be one of the best treatment strategies for busting stress and improving stress-related high blood pressure or a racing heart rate.
For most otherwise healthy adults with mild high blood pressure, the guidelines from leading health organizations recommend a trial of several months of exercise and diet before starting to take blood pressure medications.
When a patient with cancer is suffering from the fatigue that most people experience when undergoing radiation or chemotherapy, many doctors still offer the misguided advice of resting as much as possible, even though maintaining an active lifestyle has been shown to be the best medicine for fighting physical fatigue and emotional stress in cancer survivors.
Many studies have shown that exercise, both in healthy people and in those with health problems, improves mild depression, anxiety and other psychological challenges. Besides helping the body remain as physically fit as possible, exercise relieves nervous and muscle tension, and helps you to feel better about yourself. This could be due to an increase in endorphins, a chemical produced in the brain with higher levels of activity that reduce pain and induce euphoria, or it could be due to taking your mind off your worries.
Although exercising during difficult times might itself cause some fatigue, the fatigue from exercise, unlike the tiredness that results from feeling stressed, worried or being ill, also instills a sense of accomplishment and personal satisfaction from completing a workout.
In some of our work at Johns Hopkins, we have measured this sense of accomplishment in patients with serious heart problems. After becoming more physically active, these individuals reported feeling greater confidence in their ability to be active, which in turn led to further increases in their activity levels and reaping the health benefits that naturally flow from exercising more. Increased confidence in your ability to perform at higher levels of physical activity is also a great stress buster.
Not only does exercise help people better manage and treat their health problems, it also helps them feel more in charge of their health because they are now being proactive rather than just living from one doctor visit to another, or going to the drugstore every month to stock up on pills. Taking an active role in your own health care is an excellent way to reduce anxiety, a major contributor to stress.
People who exercise regularly also tend to stop or decrease their smoking and eat better, both actions that further improve their ability to cope with life’s inevitable challenges, including stress.
The benefits of exercise for stress reduction can be further enhanced when exercising with someone else or in a group. Working out with a buddy or in a group helps to maintain a consistent schedule, exposes you to a social and fun environment, and eliminates the boredom that sometimes occurs when exercising alone. Being part of a social network that provides friendship and support is a great way to improve mood and reduce stress.
So regardless of the physical and emotional challenges that life may throw your way, staying as physically active as possible will get you through tough periods of stress, leading to a healthier and happier life.
Content courtesy of Kerry Stewart, Ed.D., professor of medicine and director of clinical and research exercise physiology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. The content was reproduced with permission of the Office of Marketing and Communications for Johns Hopkins Medicine International. Additional reuse and reprinting is not allowed. The information aims to educate readers and is not a substitute for consultation with a physician.