The kids need their school pictures taken, the dog is sick again, the contractor called and delayed the countertop job, and the low fuel light is on in your car. Stress comes at us from every angle during every day, in a multitude of shapes, sizes, sources, and situations.
But stress used to be such an uncomplicated thing. The body underwent stress, a physical reaction occurred, the stress subsided, and the body returned to the status quo. Stressors were simpler too, in a primitive sense. If Tony the Saber-toothed Tiger came prowling around, the mind alerted the body, the body underwent a physical change necessary to escape the situation, the crisis was averted, and a return to a resting state quickly followed.
Essentially, back when our prehistoric buddies were stressed, their survival depended on a physical reaction.
Now, however, as more and more of our common stressors—from North Korean bombs to bringing home the bacon—are less about a need to run at top speed, the body’s reaction is not only inessential, but may actually be harmful.
Am I stressing you out yet?
It gets deeper:
Even though many of our stressors do not require an immediate physical response from us, our bodies still physically react to them. And because our stressors are more consistent than an occasional scare from a now-extinct predator, our bodies oftentimes remain in a chronically stressed-out state.
Over time, here’s what that means:
One of the hormones that’s released during a body’s reaction to stress is cortisol. Studies show that continuous amounts of cortisol can cause the body to store excess fat, particularly in the abdomen. Because daily stressors keep the body in an almost constant fight-or-flight state, we are continuously producing cortisol, and to some degree, continuously storing fat. So, along with the bombs and the bills, the battle of the bulge becomes a source of stress, as well. Besides the aesthetic detraction of a little extra around the middle, chronic stress puts the body at higher risk for developing heart disease, diabetes, depression, and even some cancers.
Here’s the good part:
It’s called exercise. Whether you hit the gym for a gut-busting, sweat-dripping kickboxing session, lace up your trusty mud-stained sneaks for a mind-clearing run through the park, take the dog for a long walk or play tag with the kids in the backyard, the instant and long-lasting stress relief that comes with a good workout is scientifically supported.
Recent studies have examined the long-lasting effects of exercise on stress levels. Not only did the runners, cyclists, boxers, and other exercisers who participated in the studies feel instantly refreshed after their exercise, they also benefited from its anxiety-busting effects long after their workout ended.
During a six-week study at the University of Colorado, stressed-out yet physically active participants’ bodies reacted less dramatically during future stressful situations than the stressed-out participants who were sedentary. The science suggests that regular exercise can actually alter your brain’s reaction to stress so your body becomes more resistant to it and the physical effects that accompany it.
Think of it like this:
This is your brain. This is your brain on stress: !$#@%^I. This is your brain on exercise: softly chirping birds, a babbling brook, gentle breezes. To reap these long-term effects though, your efforts need to be long-term as well. But when you consider exercise as your VIP pass to Calm City, it doesn’t seem so challenging to incorporate workouts into your daily routine. It’s like taking an anti-anxiety pill every day without actually having to take a pill. And while it takes a little time to change the brain’s natural response to stress, you can build strength, reduce your risk of certain diseases, lose weight, and feel better while you wait for your brain to catch up. Then, before you know it, you’ll be able to deal with stressful situations without losing your cool or feeling like you’d rather hide under a rock.
And who wouldn’t want that?