It’s common knowledge that exercise can help you de-stress after a long day. We’ve heard all that talk of releasing endorphins, relaxing muscles, and the like. These are great nuggets of information and I’m glad that science has allowed us to understand them, but did you know that exercise isn’t just about reducing your current stress levels? Regular exercise can help you deal with future stress as well. Studies have been conducted at schools like Princeton University that have proven that regular exercise can help you be less stressed in future situations!
How does this work?
When you exercise, you are putting your body through a process of positive stress, or eustress. As you work your muscles, you are actually tearing them down. The muscle tissues are being broken as you push them beyond the “comfort zone” of exercise that you usually do. Example: I work on the computer and I also play the piano, so my finger muscles are pretty comfortable when typing or playing the piano. In fact, it takes little effort on my part to do these things. That’s the “comfort zone.” My muscles aren’t being torn apart because they are used to the amount of work it takes to hit the keys on a keyboard or a piano. However, if I strapped finger weights on each of my fingers, then it would be harder to move my fingers and my muscles would exert more energy, thereby breaking down a little bit. If you think about it, the idea of breaking down your muscles sounds a bit painful. We don’t think about it because it’s a natural process, but it does cause stress at a molecular level, especially in your brain.
The cells in your brain that tell your muscles how to move and how much energy to exert, are called neurons. As your muscles break down, your neurons go into panic mode. I like to picture it as a war zone– it’s chaos as these little cells run around trying to salvage what’s being destroyed. Your brain goes on overdrive and starts making new neurons to compensate for the stress that is happening in your body. Here’s where it gets cool: your new neurons are like the next generation of an iPad, they come equipped with better features and most of the bugs removed from previous models. The stress of exercise prepares structures and pathways in your brain for future stressful situations.
What’s the best part? When you exercise, the “happy” chemicals are being released into your system, so you don’t feel all of the stress that’s going on at a molecular level. Yet, when other types of stress come your way (things like reports or negative-self talk) then your brain is more prepared to handle the stress. In fact, it will take more negative stimulation in order for you to feel the stressful effects. When you exercise consistently, then your body builds up an immunity of sorts to stressful situations. It’s amazing what the human body is capable of!
In the Princeton University study, this information was learned via lab rat experimentation. A word of caution: They found that this stress resiliency was more evident in rats that had been exercising for 6 weeks rather than rats that had been exercising for 3 weeks. Researcher Benjamin Greenwood said “something happens between 3 and 6 weeks” and it’s not clear how that will impact human exercise. What do I think? Keep exercising regularly! It can be hard to get started and it can be hard to keep going, but if you want your life to have less stress, then you need to keep on truckin’! The benefits only get better the longer you stick with it. Good luck!
About the Author: Penelope is a regular content editor and writer for firstmedicalproducts.com a retailer of TENS units used in treating sports injuries.