Why exercise is one of the best tools for building up mental stress tolerance and improving your mood

Here’s the deal: Stress is a part of life. You can’t avoid stress. Every time you take a risk, confront a situation, push to meet a deadline you will feel stress.

In terms of stress, everyone has their limit of what they can tolerate: when concentration starts to go; when productivity is affected; when we start to lose sleep. Typically, stress becomes a problem when it’s chronic.

Furthermore, our bodies/brains will always consciously or subconsciously look for ways to “manage the stress”. Some of these ways are very easily available and advertised and somewhere people are profiting from such as high calorie sugary food, alcohol, or even drug use. If you’ve ever wondered why a pint of Ben & Jerry’s or a few glasses of wine are such common go-to’s after a stressful day, that’s the reason.

Even if we try and push through, chronic stress evokes responses inside the body, and these can range from anxiety, to depression, to heart disease, and even to cancer.

The lesser known but possibly more important and immediate fact is that chronic stress shrinks the areas of the brain responsible for memory and complex thinking. In other words, chronic stress impacts our mental performance and edge in life for dealing with the challenges of life.

When it comes to dealing with stress, the goal is to find ways to manage it properly. When you handle more responsibility, you are bound to deal with more stress. When what you are made of is tested, you want to persevere and thrive despite the stress/emotional toll it can take.

This article is on the relationship between exercise/physical activity and stress management. It will explain why exercise is a powerful, necessary, frequently-used tool to manage stress and prevent its destructive effects, and most importantly how it can be applied.

How does it help?

The way that exercise helps one to manage stress is not so black and white, but there are various physiological responses that directly and indirectly have an impact. It is still a work in progress to completely understand the many effects that exercise has on the body to help it manage stress better, but here are a few:

Motivation, Well-Being, Mindset

Exercise raises serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine levels.

These are neurotransmitters that alter the way that the brain works. Never heard of these? I’ll make them familiar really easily:

Serotonin – Keeps the brain under control. It affects your mood, impulsivity, aggressiveness. Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft are all mood-elevating drugs known as SSRI’s (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) and all work by increasing serotonin levels. I will be writing about the studies that have been done comparing the efficacy of exercise vs anti depressants on mild depression in the future. Exercise also has the advantage of avoiding the weight gain, insomnia, and sexual dysfunction that are common side effects of the drugs.

Norepinephrine – affects our motivation, arousal, perception, and attention. Levophed is an antidepressant drug that increases this neurotransmitter.

Dopamine – tends to be associated with learning, reward, attention, and movement. Those diagnosed with ADHD tend to have lower dopamine levels and thus have difficulty paying attention. Our dopamine levels tend to be higher while we’re watching an exciting movie than when we’re trying to memorize the U.S. tax code. Ritalin and Adderall both work by increasing dopamine levels. When we eat Oreos or cake our bodies send a surge of dopamine to the brain. Heroin has an elevating effect on dopamine levels, and serotonin levels as well.

Naturally Bulletproofing the Body Against the Negative Effects of Stress

Exercise promotes growth in the hippocampus (memory, spatial navigation) and increases grey and white brain matter in the prefrontal cortex, i.e. your memory and higher brain functions. Stress tends to have the opposite effect.

The best way to describe this is when we exercise we put the body under “stress”. This is stress to a level that is healthy and not destructive to the body. Our bodies are designed to become more resilient based on the level of stress we put it under (without going too far of course). During exercise our muscles are not just in action, but the whole entire body and its systems are including but not limited to: our nervous system, metabolism, hormones, and of course our brains by effect are as well. Essentially it is a “controlled” act of stress that prepares the body to for it no matter what type of stress we encounter. The more sedentary the individual the more they are limiting their ability to handle the response of “stress”.

To add to this: Exercise is part of a solid lifestyle plan to significantly lower the risks of heart disease, high blood pressure, and cancer risks. The CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) estimates that 80% of heart disease/stroke, type 2 diabetes, and 40% of cancer diagnoses are preventable through regular exercise, healthy diet, and smoking cessation.

If we add regular physical activity to our routines, we are from a vantage point cognitively/mentally that we are more ready to handle stress, more motivated, confident, happier, and calmer. We are focused as we go through our day, without the stress caused by ill health or the vicious cycles that being sedentary can cause. Our bodies are built, designed and geared toward us moving and being physically active.

This is just the tip of the iceberg on how exercise helps you handle and react to stress better. If you want to get deeper into the topic I suggest reading “Spark: The Revolutionary Science of Exercise and The Brain” by Dr. John Ratey.

How Often Should I Workout to Get Positive Benefits?

This is something science is still attempting to determine, but if you read the studies that gauge the impact of exercise on cognitive change, most use 30 and 60-minute exercise sessions.

I personally recommend starting with 30-minute sessions 5 time per week as a rule of thumb, and I do this for various reasons. If you are cramped for time something is better than nothing. Although studies have not been done, I have personally felt and have had clients feel good after an intense workout that lasted under 20 minutes.

What Type of Exercise?

Most studies show that mental benefits come from activities that elevate the heart rate, and get better results with frequent exercise. For example: jump rope, running, sprinting, vigorous dancing, cardio machines.

Looking at the big picture, the best approach is a diverse one that includes some low-intensity exercise (such as brisk walking), some moderate (jogging/play), and some high-intensity exercise (strength training and intervals). The reason is that these variations all have unique positive benefits on your health and well-being. I prefer Metabolic Strength Training workouts controlling the intensity to the individual’s comfort because it tends to exercise the body in many ways all at once.

If you would like a sample routine to try that takes these principles into account try my MESPOT Workout Level 1 – 3. If you are able to take on “Level 3” without an issue, you can email me at jamesmalvesti@fitnessstandardpt.com or call me at 617 431 6240 and I will set you up with a customized Level 4 free of charge.