1. Health
Elizabeth Scott, M.S.

Exercise For Resilience Toward Stress

By October 20, 2008

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Stress can be sneaky. Many people find that they can generally handle the stress they experience in daily life, but there will be days where there's a 'perfect storm' of stressors, sneaking up to blindside and overwhelm them. Other times, there will be an unexpected crisis that was unforseen and couldn't be avoided. There's also the downward spiral day, where a difficult morning steamrolls into a difficult day and a night where sleep can't come soon enough (yet, not surprisingly, may still remain elusive). The truth is, stress happens, whether it comes in the form of a fender-bender on the way to work, a busted pipe in the wall that leads to a major plumbing problem, a disagreement with a loved one that seems to set a stressful backdrop for the entire day, or a myriad of other little hazards to be handled.

Because there's no way to keep stressors out of our lives, I'm a big fan not only of quick stress relievers that can neutralize one's response to stress, but of other ways to build resilience to stress. That's why this new study caught my eye.

Researchers looked at different types of athletes: 'elite sportsmen', 'amateur sportsmen', and 'untrained men', and compared their responses to stress. More specifically, they examined salivary free cortisol, heart rate, and psychological responses to psychosocial stress. What they found was that elite sportsmen showed significantly lower cortisol, heart rate, and state anxiety responses compared with untrained subjects. This research is in line with previous research, and shows that trained athletes--those who exercise often--experience less physiological reactivity to stress. Simply put, physical activity can work as a buffer to stress and help build overall resilience to stress.

This is good news for several reasons: exercise is already known as a great way to relieve stress that you're already feeling. It brings positive feelings (from endorphins), and a physical and psychological release (it's a good way to blow off steam, and provides a good distraction). It's good for your overall health, longevity, and even physical attractiveness, which can be linked to positive feelings about oneself. So it's nice that something that already brings so many benefits can also be used to build overall resilience toward stress.

Looking for good ways to work exercise into your day, or wondering about the best exercises for stress relief? Here are some resources you can use right away:

Rimmele U, Seiler R, Marti B, Wirtz PH, Ehlert U, Heinrichs M. The level of physical activity affects adrenal and cardiovascular reactivity to psychosocial stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology. October 13, 2008.

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October 20, 2008 at 10:21 am
(1) Janine says:

I’d be concerned this data is not analyzed properly. An elite professional athlete is trained and has trained his or her body to be less reactive in what most of us would feel as “fright or flight” responses. A tennis player who is playing for his income, for a grand prize for example, has tremendous stressors to deal with simply to play the game: an opponent whose serve beats timeclocks for speed, a worldwide audience, huge prize money. For them it’s part of conditioning to function and play under great pressure. This is not the average person simply exercising a lot – it’s an entirely different set of variables that an athlete like this must grow up with and be shaped by. If they cannot handle the stress, the pressure to perform on demand by all kinds of people whose careers and livehoods depend on them, etc. they would not be where they are. That elite position can be the product of many factors, including upbringing (not just physical but psychological) and genetics, not to mention specialized training and support for such circumstances. And it doesn’t say whether those “elite sportsmen” took any drugs, herbs, psychological coaching, a very supportive environment, etc or had any other stress-relieving techniques that helped them.

October 20, 2008 at 5:22 pm
(2) Elizabeth Stanfill says:

I totally agree. Exercise is one of the best stress relievers.

October 21, 2008 at 11:30 pm
(3) Anne says:

Well, Janine may be right about the elite athletes, I am sure the general concept is correct that people who have an opportunity to exercise and do so have a much better ability to handle stress. As a person who was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes a couple of years ago, and had to learn to make time for exercise, I have seen what a positive effect it can have on my health, based on analysis of my blood pressure and blood glucose levels.

I also submit that there are other good methods to cope with stress, which include simple things like finding time daily for laughter, and spending time with friends.


October 23, 2008 at 7:27 am
(4) Claire says:

I think this is very interesting, and I agree with Janine and Elizabeth that exercise it a great stress reliever and generally good for several health reasons.

However have you ever considered that stress could be enjoyed? By reversing the bad feeling of high arousal and stress into a good feeling of excitement. This is quite a radical way of looking at stress but going back to Janine’s response I think that many elite athletes may do just this. I mean there would be no point in a professional sports person lowering the stressful high arousal in order to become relaxed, instead they need to reverse the interpretation of the high arousal. This is just another way for people to cope with stress. Professor Michael Apter and Reversal Theory has a lot to say about this topic. I have found a really interesting and relevant article that I think will be of interest. You can find it online here: http://www.apterinternational.com/enjoyingstress

I hope you find it helpfull.


October 30, 2008 at 2:25 pm
(5) anne says:

This is something I try to practice in my own life. Often times I am fearful when I could very easily be excited. By sitting with myself and changing the qualifier of the feeling, I can actually sense my stress decreasing…it is akin to visualization. And exercise is a no brainer. We release emotion when we exercise, or at least I do, as well as toxins–all of which allow us to handle stress better.


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