Exercise has always been my goto whenever i feel stressed or anxious about life. I find that my mind is clear of thoughts when i train. This is has really help me get away from some the stresses that have occurred in my life. But what really inspired me to write this article was seeing the effect of exercise on one of my clients, who was struggling with some personal problems. It was so rewarding to hear after just a few sessions that her stress levels were reducing and her sleep was improving.
There is so much more to exercise than just looking better in the mirror. This can sometimes difficult to describe to someone who isn’t regularly hitting the gym.So in this article, I am going to look under the bonnet into the ways that exercise affects the body and improves psychological well being. I will firstly go into a brief overview of what happens to the body when we are stressed, then look at the positive effects of exercise on the body and mind.
Effects of Stress on the Body
It all starts in an area of the brain called the amygdalae, which are part of the limbic system. These little fellas deal with such things as memory, decision making and emotional reactions. When you are stressed the amygdalae send warning messages to the hypothalamus, which in simple terms mobilises the nervous system. Your heart rate increases, your intestines go a little crazy and your adrenal glands start pumping out cortisol. Blood vessels in the heart can constrict, which increases blood pressure and those butterflies you are feeling mean the body is limiting gastrointestinal activity ( = less food breakdown, bloating, and lack of nutrient absorption). A stressful day now and again is not that much of an issue. But if you find yourself highly stressed over a period of time, this can have a severe effect on the body. Hormonal changes that occur due to stress in the body, raise cholesterol overtime. When cortisol is constantly in your system (over stressed) it makes you hungry, affects your immune system, changes your sleep pattern and affects memory. All in all, quite scary stuff and that is before we mention that stress can be a cause of depression, anxiety, and heart disease.
Side note on exercise and cortisol Levels
When we exercise our body releases cortisol, hang on a sec haven’t you just told me cortisol is the enemy? Our body releases cortisol as it prepares us for action, it uses it to help metabolize fat for fuel. This temporary increase in cortisol when we exercise will reduce again after completion of a workout. Regular exercise can help us have a better response to ‘stress’ and requires less cortisol release. On the flip side, people who are overtrained or have poor nutrition, may elevate their cortisol levels through exercise. Interestingly, endurance training (running) can be linked to protein loss from muscle. This is because endurance athletes typically have a higher cortisol response, whilst resistance based athletes have higher testosterone response. This means that if you get on the treadmill for an hour your body thinks ‘ I’m being chased by a bear, i need to preserve body fat’ Thus sacrificing muscle tissue for energy, which is called the catabolic effect.
Exercise and your Psychology
So what does this all mean? Well if you are currently not training and are feeling highly stressed, I urge you to get to to the gym, have an epic workout, and i guarantee you will feel a hundred times better.
There are a range of reasons why exercise can reduce stress levels and generally improve your psychology. Most importantly, when we exercise the body releases a number of hormones.
Endorphins are released (30 mins prior to exercise) by your pituitary gland in response to stress or pain (exercise). This release minimises the discomfort of exercise and have been associated with a feeling of euphoria. However, this euphoric state may be more down to the effects of serotonin and dopamine being more prevalent. Interestingly, endorphin’s attach to the same neuron receptors as opiates ( morphine and heroin). However the addictive effects of exercise are much lower. Away from exercise, other ways that endorphin’s can be released into the body is through eating foods such as chillies and chocolate. (just make sure to buy the 80 + % bars)
Dopamine is another important chemical released when we exercise. This is particularly important when we are treating stress, as dopamine is the chemical that brings about pleasure in the brain. Dopamine is also released when we have sex or eat some lush food . Low levels of dopamine have also has been linked to sleep deprivation and depression. With regular exercise, these levels can be increased, limiting the effects of stress. An an interesting side note. Low levels of dopamine have also been found in people with parkinsons, which is why it has been said that exercise has a positive effect on the symptoms of the disease.
The final chemical we are going to look at in relation to exercise is serotonin. This neurotransmitter has a number of functions such as regulating mood, appetite, and the sleep cycle. (All of which are deregulated when we are stressed) When we exercise brain serotonin function increases in two ways. Motor activity increases the frequency at which serotonin is fired within the brain, increasing the release and synthesis of the chemical. Whilst regular exercise also increases the level of an amino acid ( Tryptophan) which is used to create serotonin.
In relation to mental helath, positive links between exercise and depression have been found. Many studies have found that symptoms of depression have been reduced with regular resistance and aerobic exercise. This has been put down to a number of factors such as the endorphin effect ( as seen above) , distraction effect (exercise is a distraction from depressing thoughts), self efficacy hypothesis (exercise gives an individual a meaningful experience and that they have achieved something), and finally the monoamine affect ( dopamine and serotonin)
I hope this article shows just how important regular exercise is on our hormones and stress levels. Whenever you feel stressed, I urge you all to hit the gym, we promise you will feel ten times better.
PS. If you dont believe the science, listen to Arnie. “Training gives us an outlet for supressed energies created by stress and thus tones the spirit, just as exercise conditions the body” Arnold Schwarzenegger