Most would agree that the old saying, ‘exercise does a body good’ rings true, but fewer recognize that exercise is also good for the mind. Exercise can help counteract the negative effects of stress, will decrease chronic pain originators, and will accelerate the excretion of ‘happy hormones’, helping to turn that frown upside-down.
We wear many hats: parent, spouse, bill payer, employer/employee, social activity member, etc. Each of these roles hold value to the individual, but most of the time there is a problem in at least one area, which can cause great stress. Moments of stress are normal, but prolonged stress can lead to mental instability, depression and an increase in appetite, which leads to a build-up of fat on the body. A healthy diet and a daily exercise plan are two important ways to decrease emotional stress and elevate mood.
Besides decreasing stress and elevating mood, the hormones released during exercise help to increase or maintain the metabolic rate, keep the lymph system distributing immune cells, burn fat, build muscle, and a host of other positive ends.
What Stress Does to both Body and Mind
Depending on an individual’s present circumstance, the nervous system determines if ‘all engines’ are running in calm balance (parasympathetic) or ‘fight or flight’, full throttle mode (sympathetic). Parasympathetic responses restore the body to a normal state of operations. Sympathetic responses prepare the body for physical or psychological stress.
Each of these systems (sympathetic and parasympathetic) will cause the body to release different hormones that perform drastically different functions. While calm, balanced, rational, parasympathetic responses decrease the heart rate and maintain optimal temperature regulation, stress (sympathetic) responses increase the heart rate and dilate both the muscles and blood vessels.
The body is in a state of sympathetic nervous system response during periods of negative stress. The adrenal gland produces the two most common stress hormones — cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline). A primary function of cortisol is to remove excess fat from the liver (gained primarily by making consistently poor food choices) and moving that fat to the deep abdominal muscles. This function of cortisol contributes to a negative ‘food choice’ spiral, as its release also causes an increase appetite.
Prolonged secretion of cortisol also acts to weaken the immune system. Epinephrine, the other stress hormone, increases blood sugar by prompting the retrieval and utilization of stored glucose. This method of carbohydrate metabolism, initiated with epinephrine, can be of great use during exercise, but is a negative effect when not exercising. Working optimally, the body will burn fat as its first energy-source choice while at rest.
Stress, experienced without the exercise ‘anti-dote, will increase body fat around the midsection, weaken the immune system and negatively influence nutrient demands. Prolonged periods of stress can accelerate migraine headaches, create hypoglycemia, create non-specific joint pain, hinder sleep patterns, increase feelings of anxiety, increase non-specific joint pain and lead to depression.
An exercise program (not pills) is a long-term solution to counteracting stress. Concentrating on an exercise, whether the exercise is swimming, running, strength training or martial arts, is a method of relaxation through movement. Focusing on the next stroke, the next step, and the next repetition, will help lift stresses built up during a day slide off the shoulders. Find a physical activity that is enjoyable, practice it on a daily basis, and stress levels will significantly decrease.
Nothing elevates mood quite like a drastic decrease in pain. Edward Laskowski, M.D., co-director of the Sports Medicine Center at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist, states, “Years ago, people who were in pain were told to rest. But now we know the exact opposite is true. When you rest, you become deconditioned – which may actually contribute to chronic pain.”
Exercise decreases pain through a multitude of avenues, improving sleeping patterns, building muscular strength, increasing flexibility and energy levels, assisting the maintenance of a healthy weight, increasing self-esteem and improving overall mood. Improved sleeping patterns decrease the production of stress hormones, especially cortisol. Building muscular strength helps decrease joint pain by providing better support, as if the body added a layer of armor. Lowering bodyweight also decreases the pressure on the joints. An increase in flexibility removes knots in the muscles and allows the joints to move freely. Exercise also makes the body look better. Sometimes a minor improvement in appearance can raise self-esteem.
Runner’s high is not a fable. It is a scientifically proven phenomenon. During periods of exercise, the endocrine system releases opiates into our bloodstream, called endorphins. The pituitary gland releases endorphins in areas of the brain with responsibility for helping to suppress pain.
The term runner’s high was derived from practical anecdotes backed by clinical science. After an intense bout of exercise, individuals often feel a profound sense of euphoria and happiness, and have very little pain sensitivity. From a clinical setting, the endorphins released are opiates from the same class as opium, heroin and morphine. Opiates decrease feelings of fear, panic, and anxiety, helping explain why individuals can become ‘addicted’ to exercise.
Of course, runner’s high is not specific to running. Individuals can feel the feelings of euphoria while performing most cardiovascular routines as long as the body keeps moving. Although getting outside and going to the gym to train is sometimes the last thing individuals feel like doing, it’s simply the best option for improving one’s overall mood.