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Stress Management for Health Course

Exercise and Stress


"Researchers at the University of Mexico found that sedentary people report more perceived stress and have more stress related hormones in their blood stream than a group of people who did regular exercise."

Research has shown physically fit people are more stress resistant when compared to people who do not exercise.  Aerobic exercise is a powerful, yet underused, stress management tool.  It helps to improve our psychological health by having beneficial effects on our brain chemistry.  Exercise has a tranquillising effect, reducing anxiety and inducing relaxation.  It also helps to reduce muscle tension and boosts energy levels.  Exercise has been shown to lower the activity of the sympathetic nervous system.  For example research has shown that when people who regularly exercise are exposed to stressful situations their heart rate does not rise as much as when people who do not exercise, are exposed to stressors.

The Father of Stress Medicine, the late Dr Hans Selye, carried out research on exercise and its role in reducing stress.  He took 10 under exercised rats and exposed them to stressors. At the end of a month all of these rats died.  He then tested another 10 rats that were in peak physical fitness after being trained on exercise treadmills.  He exposed these fit rats to the same stressors and found that the physically fit rats had better tolerance to stress than the unfit rats.  At the end of the month none of the fit rats had died.  He concluded that physical fitness helped buffer a person from the health damaging effects of chronic stress.

In the earlier part of the 1980's a research team led by Dr Suzanne Kobasa carried out a study looking at the relationship between exercise and stress which was published in the journal of Behavioural Medicine.  This study found that as exercise increased, illness decreased.  It also revealed that people with high levels of stress hardiness, who also exercised, had average severity of illness scores, and their scores were less than one sixth of those who were low in both stress hardiness and exercise. 

(We will discuss more about Stress Hardiness in Session 5)

The biochemical and physiological changes brought about by the fight/flight response are designed to be dissipated by the physical activity of fighting or running away.  Unfortunately we cannot fight or run away from psychosocial stressors and this is compounded by the fact that most of us, because of technology, dont even get enough natural exercise.

It's not automatic that if you suffer stress that you will develop stress related psychological and physical health problems, regular exercise can buffer us from the disease potential of stress.

It's wise not to exercise using a competitive sport because the stress of a competitive sport would be counterproductive in some people competitive sports can increase their stress, not decrease it.


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