Stress is significant to our survival.
Harvard explains a stress response: “When someone experiences a stressful event, the amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. This area of the brain functions like a command center, communicating with the rest of the body through the nervous system so that the person has the energy to fight or flee.”
We need stress!
During a stressful event, our Sympathetic Nervous system acts like a gas pedal. It signals fight or flight and gives you a large burst of energy. You are likely to feel your heart rate and breathing pick up the pace. You’ll feel stronger than you normally do and be capable of greater physical feats. Next, your Parasympathetic nervous system kicks in to calm you down, acting like “the brakes”, it helps your nervous system calm down after “the danger” has passed.
Here is what happens during a stress response:
- Your brain activates your sympathetic nervous system by sending signals through nerves and adrenal glands
- The glands pump epinephrine/adrenaline into your bloodstream
- Your heart beats faster, sending more blood to the heart/muslces/vital organs
- HR, bloodpressure, breathing rate all increase, small airways in the lungs open wide
- More oxygen is sent to the brain increasing your alertness and all of your senses
- Epinephrine also triggers the release of glucose and fats from temporary storage sites in the body, this floods the body with energy
- Cortisol is released into your bloodstream, as cortisol lowers your parasympathetic nervous system kicks in to slow down the stress response
During chronic stress, it’s like your stress system is stuck idling too high for too long. Persistent adrenaline surges can damage vessels and arteries, increase blood pressure and greatly increase chances of heart attack or stroke. Elevated cortisol levels makes you hungry to replenish the glucose and fat that is being used. This can lead to weight gain.
Now exercise is absolutely acts as a stress on your body. But, it is one of the best ways to help your body manage your stress. In one of my FAVOURITE books “Move the Body, Heal the Mind” by Jennifer Heisz PhD; Jennifer discusses how exercise helps:
- Exercise has a “toning” affect on the stress system, it makes you stronger and better able to deal with stressful events
- Exercise is anti-inflammatory which helps protect us from depression
- When you exercise the sympathetic nervous system kicks in. Especially during heavy lifting and HIIT. But after the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in to calm your system down. Over time the parasympathetic nervous system gets stronger and is better prepared to manage your stress in day to day life
- Exercise makes you mentally stronger and less reactive to everday stressors
- More Active = Less Mood + Less Inflamed + Less Depressed
- Exercise will help those that don’t require medicine to manage their mental health AND THOSE THAT DO (which doesn’t mean that they won’t need meds anymore, it just means that they will have better symptom management and energy)
What kind of exercise is the most helpful for those dealing with chronic stress?
Generally speaking the answer is “it depends”. At LYB we teach our clients that exercise is to energize us and not further deplete you when you’re exhausted. Many of us (like me) have significant relief from stress from both heavy lifting and HIIT training. Some clients lean more towards one or the other. I generally won’t push a very stressed person to do the type of exercise they dislike. But, if we do it right, it can be the most helpful way of managing stress.
Don’t know where to start? Too overwhelmed?
That’s where a supportive program like what we offer at LYB comes in really handy. Personal Training is absolutely the gold standard when it comes to finding the right type of exercise to help you manage your stress better. But, our group program is super supportive with accountability/support calls built into the program. We love to be the place where our clients heal. Where they turn up and turn off their brains, where they connect with our supportive community and where they put themselves on the priority list and start to feel a little better.