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Exercise as a Stress Management Modality
When asked how they cope with stress a large percentage of people indicate
that they use exercise as their primary coping resource. How can an
activity that is physiologically almost identical to the physiological response
of psychological stress be helpful as a coping technique? What follows is
a working paper on how physical activity can function as a therapeutic modality.
Also included are recommendations on the use of physical activity to promote
emotional health. If you have other ideas, or are aware of additional
research not cited on this page, please communicate with the author.
Click here for a list of scientific references on Exercise
and Emotional Health.
- Detoxification of Stress Related Compounds: During the stress
response somewhere in the neighborhood of 1500 biochemical reactions occur
in the body. Neurotransmitters are activated, hormones are released,
and nutrients are metabolized. Some body systems (e.g., the cardiovascular
system) accelerate their functions and others (e.g., the gastrointestinal
system) slow down their operations in response to stress. This is
commonly referred to as the fight of flight response. The body is
being prepared to expend physical energy which in prehistoric times was
necessary for survival. In modern times most human stress is
psycho-social in nature, so the need to respond physically in most cases is
unnecessary. Unfortunately the byproducts of the stress response
continue to circulate in the body and have the potential to create physical
illness (e.g., cortisol secretion's impact on the immune system).
Regular exercise is useful in removing the byproducts of the stress response
by providing the opportunity to simulate the fighting or running dictated by
the fight or flight phenomenon. As such, regular exercise allows the body to
return to homeostasis faster and reduce the physical impact of psycho-social
- Physical Activity as an Outlet for Anger and Hostility: Recent
research has documented the important role that expression or repression of
anger and hostility plays in disease progression. For many, physical
activity is a healthy catharsis for this most caustic of emotions.
Used properly (see recommendations below) exercise provides a socially
acceptable means of physically releasing negative energy. Whether one
gets in a racquetball court and bangs away at at a ball, or beats up on
their pillow, the physical release of energy appears to dissipate feelings
of anger in a healthy way.
- Moving Meditation: Certain forms of exercise (jogging, cross
country skiing, swimming, hiking, bicycling) require a fairly consistent
repetitive motion that can alter one's state of consciousness.
Described by some as moving meditation, the physiological effects of regular
participation in these activities is very similar to what happens when one
practices meditation. Breathing and movement, act as a mantra and may
in part be responsible for the feelings of calmness and tranquility claimed
by some in response to exercise.
- Enhanced Feelings of Self Esteem and Self Efficacy: Appropriately
high levels of self esteem and self efficacy have been correlated with
increased ability to cope with high stress levels. Exercise cultivates
self esteem and self efficacy in a number of ways including; a. when ever an
individual knowingly participates in a health enhancing activity it is
common to experience increased feelings of self worth as one realizes they
are doing something which will ultimately benefit them, b. participation in
physical activities that have known social value attached to them, promotes
social acceptance and status, c. an added benefit of regular physical
activity is that it has the potential to alter one's body image in a
socially desirable manner thus increasing self image and improving self
esteem, d. frequent physical activity also promotes consistent
physical challenges which when conquered, foster feelings of self efficacy.
- Periodic Solitude and Introspection: For some, exercise is a
solitary escape from the daily toils and pressures of a stressful society.
The escape can be a bicycle ride in the country, the cocoon of a lap pool,
an early morning run, or any other form of physical exertion that provides a
mini vacation and allows one to recharge their energy levels to deal with
conflicts when they return. Others use this time to self reflect on issues
of importance, or to stimulate creative problem solving.
- Opportunities for Social Support: The buffering effects of social
support are well documented. Recreational activities (softball, golf, a fun
run, a pick up game of basketball) encourage a sense of fun and play with
other individuals that have similar interests and can provide a number
opportunities to discuss life situations. The sharing that ensues,
ensures one that they are not alone and that help is available for the
- The Power of Human Touch: A significant volume of research is
accumulating on the positive physical properties of human touch. Some of the
research has demonstrated a reduction in stress related hormones
accompanying positive expressions of human touch. Recreational and
sporting endeavors raise occasions and provide excuses to touch others in a
positive way. As an example, in a culture that breeds homophobia, men
are told that it is socially acceptable to hug other men and pat them on the
buttocks during sporting events. This behavior is normally considered
taboo and many men would otherwise have few chances to express emotions in
such a physical manner.
- Reduction of Muscular Tension: During stress muscles contract
(Bracing) and loose their normal resting muscle tone. Bouts of
physical activity allow muscles to work, thereby releasing stored energy and
allowing muscle groups to return to their normal resting potential.
This action also reduces further stress that is precipitated by pain and
discomfort associated with muscular tension (e.g., tension headaches,
arthritic joint pain, backache, temporomandibular joint dysfunction).
Stretching and yoga are also effective in reducing muscular tension.
- Endorphin Theories: Catecholamines including ß endorphins have
been shown to increase during physical activity of twenty minutes or more.
Chemically similar to opiate compounds this morphine like substance has been
shown to provide an analgesic (pain relieving) effect and promote a sense of
euphoria. First suggested as the mechanism of the so called second
wind or runner's high, the presence and effect of these chemical compounds
in the brain is now controversial (see: Stoll, O. (1997) Endogenous opiates,
Runner's High and Exercise Addiction - The rise and decline of a myth (Endogene
Opiate, Runner's High und Laufsucht - Austieg und Niedergang eines
Mythos). Leipziger Sportwissenschaftliche Beitraege.). The physical
and emotional symptoms of withdrawal associated with the rapid decrease of
physical activity (as occurs with athletic injuries) of physically fit
individuals has also been attributed to this hormone. Most of the
controversy in this area has do to with our inability to measure chemical
changes that occur on the other side of the blood brain barrier.
Regardless of the neuro chemical reaction or other mechanisms that initiate
changes in emotional status, this phenomenon does seem to exist. The
positive mood states associated with frequent exercise are so significant
that some have suggested that this is a more effective treatment for
clinical depression than either psychotherapy, or the use anti depression
- Increased Somatic Awareness: One of the byproducts of relaxation
training is that practitioners develop an increased sense of somatic
awareness. This means that they become more in tuned with their body.
They are able to detect subtle changes in their physiology that they were
previously unaware of (e.g., breathing depth and respiration, muscular
tension, heart rate). This new awareness allows individuals to be able
to circumvent the physiological process of stress before it can cause
problems. Regular physical activity will enhance the same awareness.
As a result it is much easier to teach relaxation training to physically fit
individuals. Conversely, those who are the most out of touch with
their bodies, have the most difficulty in learning to alter their physiology
in a health enhancing way.
- Decreased Boredom and the Stress of High Risk Activities: Too
little stress in one's life can be just as upsetting as too much stress.
It is natural for humans to seek out stimulation and excitement. For
some the opportunity for physical challenges is the most interesting part of
life. This urge can be expressed through activities such as running as
fast as one can, swimming as far as one can, or hitting a golf ball as
straight and hard as possible. On the far end of the continuum are
people who voluntarily involve themselves in high risk physical activities
such as extreme skiing, hang gliding, scuba diving, and jumping out of
perfectly good airplanes. By constantly testing themselves individuals
learn how to take on higher and higher loads of stress. The learning
that ensues transfers over to stress that is experienced in daily life.
For example, it would be difficult to imagine someone spending all day solo
rock climbing without the use of ropes for safety, driving back into a city
and getting upset over being caught in traffic.
- Training for Competition: Being related to physical activity, many
advocates of competitive sports contend that participants learn a great deal
about life and what is necessary for success through their participation.
Knowing what it takes to win, how to accept loss, how to set goals, how to
deal with high levels of stress, and how to get along with others are all
mentioned as lessons learned through involvement in sports.
- Improvement in Sleep and Rest: A symptom of stress overload
for some is the inability to sleep or get adequate rest. A fatigued
individual is less able to perform at a high level. Exercise has been
shown to be very effective in helping some individuals fall asleep easily
and sleep more soundly. The assumption is that one is not over doing
physical training and becoming exhausted from the activity.
- Fitter to Fight Stress and Disease: One who is physically fit
has organ systems that are functioning at an optimal level. If this
individual should become ill, or injured, or even pregnant, they will
demonstrate more stamina and greater resiliency to fight the discomfort .
It is also likely that fit individuals will recover more quickly.
- Others? I am always looking for other explanations of how
physical activity may e helpful in dealing with stress. E-mail me if
you have suggestions.
General RecommendationsThe therapeutic benefits of regular physical
activity is without rival. Study after study has shown that it increases
longevity while decreasing morbidity and mortality from a host of diseases.
Someone once said that if exercise was a pill, it would be the most powerful
medication known to humans. The only problem is that it is difficult to
get modern men and women to take that pill every day. Inactivity should be
considered a dis-ease state.
Adults are often told that they should consult a physician before beginning an
exercise program. Based upon scientific evidence, it may be more
appropriate to consult a physician before sitting down in a lounge chair in
front of a TV with a remote control.
Stressed out individuals often complain that they do not have time to
exercise. This is unusual when one considers that a high percentage of
CEOs of fortune five hundred companies indicate that they exercise on a regular
basis. Even the president of our country seems to find time in his busy
schedule to jog and play golf. Don't these folks have anything better to
do with their time? It is more likely that they have learned to be
competitive and at their best only when they make the time to sweat and get
their hearts pumping.
What types of physical activities are recommended for stress and emotional
|The form of exercise chosen should be enjoyable. Individuals
will be more likely to continue activities that they perceive as fun
compared to those that are viewed as pure drudgery. If you don't like
running, then don't run. Why do that to yourself? Involvement in
negative activities will only work to increase one's depression and stress
|Activities should be non-competitive and ego void. Although
competition was highlighted above as a positive function, for some wining
becomes the most important part of competition. The downside of
competition for overly competitive people is that they sometimes lose.
This works to decrease esteem and increase depression. One can either
compete against opponents that they will always beat (boring), or choose not
to enter competitive activities. For some this is more difficult than
it may seem. If the classic Type A person takes up running to reduce
stress, they will be likely to purchase a running watch and each time they
run they will try and run faster than the last time they ran. That
does not do much to reduce stress.
|Choose activities that promote personal satisfaction.
Although some say they play golf to relax, I personally can find few
activities that are as stressful. Trying to hit a tiny ball hundreds
of yards into a tiny hole is not relaxing. Someone once described golf
as a good way to screw-up a nice walk. Perhaps because my skill level
is so low, when invited to play with friends I do not enjoy looking like a
buffoon as I spend most of my time looking for lost balls. On the
other hand if I am playing with my wife who is also somewhat inept, we can
just enjoying being outdoors together and not worry about the score.
In general, try to find activities that promote positive feelings regarding
|Aerobic Vs. anaerobic activities Activities performed at a
long slow steady interval seem to have a calming effect on people. One
study indicated that male long distance runners experience a decrease in
testosterone levels. Associated with hyper aggressiveness, this
hormonal change may very useful to some. On the other hand, the
opposite seems to occur with high intensity training. Spend time in
any busy weight room and you can almost feel the testosterone being pumped
up. The high one gets from lifting weights is not the same as the
tranquility experienced by those who condition aerobically. Weight
lifters feel powerful and confident following workouts. From a
physical health perspective aerobic activities are generally considered
superior in reducing the risks associated with most diseases (especially
heart disease). Weight training appears to be be more effective in
reducing the risk of osteoporosis. From a mental health perspective I
would recommend cross training in both aerobic and anaerobic exercise to
increase variety in workouts while encouraging feelings of both powerfulness
|How much exercise? The frequency and duration of exercise is
determined by ones goals. To get in shape quicker it is recommended
that one exercise frequently as opposed to fewer times and longer durations.
Weekend athletes don't cut it. In most cases fitness will be
lost at less than three sessions a week. Ideally one should attempt to
do something physical each day to prepare for the stressors ahead or to
decrease the residual effects of stress during the day.
|Sexual activity as exercise Don't forget to include sexual
activity as part of your physical activity. Orgasm is a great release
of muscular and emotional tension. Like other forms of physical
activity, make sure it is fun and not stressful. It is also good if
you can include someone you like in your activity.|
Negative consequences and contraindications
|Compulsive Training Like any activity exercise can have its
downside. Overuse of any coping strategy can create additional
problems. For some, physical activity can be escape from taking
responsibility for ones actions. By indulging themselves in their
activity, they avoid troubling life situations which are difficult to
resolve. Similarly, although most can benefit from increased levels of
self esteem, this is different from the unhealthy narcissistic tendencies
others derive from physical training.
|Aggressive Tendencies Although physical activity can be a
useful catharsis for aggression, aggressive sport activities can also act to
condition one to become more aggressive. If one learns to be
successful by acting overly aggressive, it is not a far stretch to see how
some may use this aggression to get what they want in other areas of life.
Not a very positive consequence of physical activity and certainly one that
can increase stress and negative emotional reactions.
|Addiction Those who exercise on a daily basis often describe
being addicted to their activity. Although considered to be a positive
addiction to some, the withdrawal effects of not being able to exercise can
create problems. Whether caused by changes in catecholamines levels
(not getting their daily fix of endorphins) or some other mechanism,
individuals should be aware of possible increases in hostility, anxiety,
irritability and depression associated with not working out.|
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