Stressed? Exercise!

We all have stress.  It’s a fact of life.  And it’s a good thing to have some stress.  Imagine a world with no stress at all.  When our kids cry, we might not respond.  When a term paper is due, you might not get it done in time.

And when your wife calls you for a ride home, she might just be standing outside in the rain for a while.  We need to have some stress in order to accomplish important daily tasks.  It’s when stress become excessive that we can get into trouble.  Constant extreme stress damages our mental and physical health and must be dealt with.

Yonatan is a client of mine who is 45 years old.  He runs a large company and is responsible for the daily activities.  Yonatan has to answer to the ownership and must submit a comprehensive reports on profits, losses, revenue and what future projects are in the pipeline. He has been trying to lose weight and work on his stress levels.  One of the main reason Yonatan hasn’t been successful in his previous weight loss attempts because of stress.  Yonatan’s stress is on such an intense, consistent level that he has developed a metabolic cascade which is causing his metabolism to function incorrectly. All his efforts in weight loss are only bringing small results.

What is Stress?

Stress is the normal physical response to a threat.  It is based on what we call fight or flight, otherwise known as the acute stress response.  Essentially, the response prepares the body to either fight or flee the threat. It is also important to note that the response can be triggered due to both real and imaginary threats. Imagine yourself driving along a road near your house. Suddenly a car zooms out of nowhere. You slam on the brakes just in time to avoid an accident. That’s the stress response at its best. You suddenly become extra-alert, energetic, and focused.

But what happens when stress is constant?  Stress, when excessive can be debilitating.  It can make you exhausted, and it can cause serious health issues.  Most stress experts now agree that roughly 85% of all illness and disease in the United States is stress induced or exacerbated.

What are some symptoms of stress?
  • Pain of any kind
  • Heart disease
  • Digestive problems
  • Sleep problems
  • Depression
  • Obesity
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Skin conditions

Although we commonly think of either medication or talk therapy as the best treatments for stress, research over the past 20 years has demonstrated that consistent exercise may be one of the best treatments.

Exercise as a Prime Treatment

Numerous studies in 2011 and 2012 proved that exercise shows tremendous promise as a neuroprotective intervention.  Exercise protects our brains from stress in several ways.  When we exercise (and the more intense the better the results) we increase Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which maintains brain health.  Not only does exercise give us more BDNF, it also triggers the brain’s self-repair processes.  And last, exercise also activates the brain’s self-calming system by releasing a neurotransmitter called GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid) in order to restore balance in the autonomic nervous system.

Perhaps the most encouraging research fact is that exercise can create a STRESS RESISTANT BRAIN (Fleshner et. al. 2011)!

How much does one need to exercise and at what intensity?

As previously stated, intense exercise is good. However, intense exercise for a prolonged period of time is not good for the cardiovascular system, immune system or the brain.  Moderate exercise, for less than an hour at a time brings great results, and intense exercise in short bouts can also help change your neuropathways.

Good for Depression, too!

Remember that exercise in all of its forms, aerobic and resistance training, does help us manufacture more of the feel-good neurotransmitters in our brains. These are the same hormones that anti-depressant medications work on.  The famous 1999 SMILE study at Duke University showed that exercise is just as effective as medication in treating major depression. In addition, exercise does not have the negative side effects of the various medications.


Counter Intuitive

Stress and exercise go both ways! Those with high levels of stress tend to be less physically active. At the same time, a lifestyle with little physical activity is associated with a greater degree of stress.

Stress can be measured via objective (stressful life events) or subjective means (perceived stress). Both measures result in lower rates of physical activity. One review of several studies showed that the relationship between stress and exercise appears to differ based on one’s regular exercise habits. Those who are regular exercisers show higher levels of exercise during stressful periods, while those who are not regular exercisers show lower levels of exercise during stressful periods.  Not everyone will have poor adherence to exercise in the presence of stress. 

Metabolic Cascade

As we mentioned earlier, Yonatan’s chronic stress had him develop a metabolic cascade.  In this situation, stress acts as a trigger to interrupt the processes of normal cellular function.  In other words, the stress cascade is responsible for allowing the body to make the necessary physiological and metabolic changes required to cope with the demands of normal function in times of stress, until it is overloaded.  When in this state, weight loss becomes difficult and the likelihood of illness can increase.

We started Yonatan on an exercise program that gradually increased in intensity.  In addition, we began meeting weekly for coaching in order to help him work through his stresses and problem solve several aspects of his responsibilities in his work place.  After 6 weeks, there were noticeable changes in Yonatan.  He began to lose weight at a faster pace of about a pound a week and he was so much more relaxed.  Even his wife called me to tell me how their home had become a more relaxed place.

We live in a stress-filled society.  The difficulties on us financially, keeping relationships sound, raising children and meeting the demands can take their toll.  But if we take the proper steps to manage our stress and make sure we use exercise in that realm, we will “add hours to our day, days to your year and years to our life”.


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