Photo by Mike Hoff
I started lifting weights because I knew that it will help me get stronger bones. As a woman, Osteoporosis is a big concern for me. I started working out because I wanted to lose the belly bulge. But, recently, I found out that there are lasting benefits to keeping our bodies moving when it comes to reducing stress.
First, let’s define what stress is and what it does to our bodies. Stress is basically the response we get when faced with overwhelming situations like work deadlines, money problems, relationship issues, etc. When we get into these and similar situations, our bodies respond by increasing the production of the hormone, cortisol, as a part of our fight or flight response. Normally, when the stress causing situation goes away, our bodies return to normal. But, the kind of stress we experience these days are usuall ongoing which keeps our Cortisol levels up for days.
What Stress is and What Cortisol Does to Us
When we have elevated Cortisol, we tend to store more fat in our abdominal area. I believe there was a drug that was being advertised on T.V. that was supposed to control Cortisol. Anyway, apart from that side effect that none of us really want, stress also causes us to develop unhealthy eating habits. I definitely recognize the times when I reach for something sweet or when I feel like “indulging” myself when I encounter stressful situations. Additionally, stress is also associated with some of the most common chronic diseases known to man.
Looking at Some Facts and Figures
Note: I got these figures from an article in Fitness Magazine.
- 75% of people in the United States feel stressed out
- Almost half of us eat unhealthfully because of it
- 47% of us can’t sleep because of stress. I am definitely one of those sometimes.
- It makes 1 in 3 of us depressed and for 42% of us, it has gotten worse in the last year.
How to Manage Stress and Keep it That Way
Most of us know that taking a few deep breaths during stressful times will help manage stress. But, the hormonal response when we’re stressed can be powerful that we don’t even think about this trick. So far, the latest scientific research reveals that exercise is the best remedy to stress. One study at Princeton put animals on a six-week aerobic conditioning program, then compared their brains with a group that remained sedentary. The scientists found that the brains of the animals who were exercising transformed into a biochemically calm state over time that stayed steady even when they were under stress. On the other hand, the sedentary animals’ brains continued to react strongly to anxiety-inducing situations.
The better news for me and other women (sorry men) out there is we naturally and hormonally handle stress better compared to men. To even out the playing field, we can all incorporate regular exercise to our lifestyle which changes our brain, so it takes more stress to trigger the fight or flight response (John Ratey, M.D., Harvard Medical School).
Dr. Ratey at the Harvard Medical School says that cardiovascular activity (which I assume exercise in general as well) helps the heart pump more blood to the brain. More blood means more oxygen and more oxygen means better nourished brain cells. The brain cells become more active and boosts the production of a protein called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF fortifys our brain cells which prevents them from breaking when exposed to stress. BDNF actually helps preserve the brain cells we already have and helps make new ones. This is a great benefit in my book. This may even help us prevent Alzheimer’s Disease down the road – just my guess.
All these benefits sound too good to be true so what’s the catch? If our bodies become sedentary again, the brain cells shrink. So, to maintain the effects, you have to keep working out 🙂 The stress fighting power of exercise just gives me more reasons to hit the gym or the road (with my running shoes of course) more often. Besides, exercise makes me feel good and gives me the power to change how I’m feeling if I’m having a not-so great day. I’ve found that finding reasons like these to keep exercising helps keep me on track and fuel me to get my workouts in even on days when I don’t feel like it.
So, the next time you’re debating going to the gym, tell yourself, “I want to increase my stress fighting power today.”