Exercise Plays a Vital Role in Stress Management

In this time of cascading crises (the pandemic, on top of remote/hybrid schooling, on top of unemployment…), stress management becomes imperative. There are many effective means of stress management, so finding one that is to your liking can really increase how often you use it. There’s a meme I’ve seen: “Food is the most abused anxiety drug, and exercise is the most underutilized antidepressant.” Our bodies evolved in circumstances far removed from social distancing and pandemic lockdowns. Stressors were far more often acute. Running away from a saber-toothed tiger (my favorite example) provokes an adrenaline response designed to get you away from the threat. This is what’s known as the fight or flight response. 

Once we’ve gotten away, your nervous system is designed to take you out of the fight or flight response, back into the state intended to be dominant, which can be referred to as “rest and digest.” For example, when you are running for your life, digesting whatever you’ve recently eaten isn’t a priority. This is why an adrenaline response can involve an upset stomach. Long term however, healthy digestion is a priority for overall health, so the body needs to get out of fight or flight as soon as appropriate. The problem with our current situation is that the saber-tooth tiger is only threatening, but threatening constantly, and threatening in areas we usually feel most secure, such as with our extended families. Being constantly under threat makes it very difficult for the body to get out of fight or flight, resulting in things like insomnia from the constant vigilance.

While there is little we can do about the pandemic or other societally-wide problems, we do have some tools at hand to confront our stress. As you may have noted in the original example, running away is a key component. When we feel under threat, vigorous exercise can signal the nervous system that we have removed ourselves from danger. Running as exercise can be a rather literal signal, but resistance training can similarly indicate the “fight” portion of the response. On top of these responses, exercise also increases circulation, decreases blood pressure, improves digestion (mechanically improving the passage of food through the system). Additionally, exercise can be time and space to do something specifically for yourself, as well as providing something novel to focus on instead of our worries. 

One problem people often encounter is a lack of time. There are a couple ways to deal with this. First, as I alluded to at the beginning, is doing something you enjoy. Not only will this give you much more incentive to find the time for it in the first place, but on tough days when you don’t want to exercise, it will be much easier to keep going once you’ve started if you enjoy what you’re doing. Second, begin by working with the time you have. If you don’t have an hour to do the activity you like, figure out what you can do with the time you do have. It is far more satisfying to get some of what you want rather than none of what you want. If you don’t have the hour you need for a run, perhaps you can find twenty minutes for a brisk walk. Third, bodyweight resistance exercise can generally be done without any equipment, and therefore is very time-economical. 

My favorite examples are pushups and walking lunges. Pushups can be formatted to provide the right amount of resistance for anyone who can walk, and are a superb core exercise as well. Lunges are a complete lower body exercise, and also train lateral stability because of the narrow stance. These two exercises together train stability in three dimensions, require no equipment and minimal warmup, and can be alternated in sets to moderately intense cardiovascular exercise. 

In short, a big part of stress management is recognizing what we can control. Moving our bodies regularly can improve our health, provide enjoyment, and demonstrate to ourselves that we have some control in the situation. It can also allow us to downshift the body out of the fight or flight response and back into rest and digest. For the time being, that can make a difference in stress management.

Photo by Barth Bailey on Unsplash