The Stress-Exercise Connection—how does this work?

200447888-001With today’s societal demands, there is no shortage of stressors in our daily lives. We deal with so many issues such as health, education, relationships, finances, and more. Sometimes when things are stressful, we go for a walk, jog or swim and come back feeling calm and better equipped to deal with the issues at hand. Did the stress go away? It’s probably still there but something happened in your brain to be able to handle the information better in a less stressful way.

What happened? 

75% of the general population experiences at least “some stress” every two weeks according to the National Health Interview Survey. Since psychological stress begins in the brain when we perceive a threat, let us first understand how the body handles that stress with something called the “fight-or-flight response.” The fight-or-flight response refers to a physiological reaction that occurs in the presence of something that is terrifying, either mentally or physically. The fight-or-flight response was first described in the 1920s by American physiologist Walter Cannon. Cannon realized that a chain of rapidly occurring reactions inside the body help mobilize the body’s resources to deal with threatening circumstances.

In response to acute stress, the body’s sympathetic nervous system is activated due to the sudden release of hormones. The sympathetic nervous system stimulates the adrenal glands triggering the release of adrenaline and noradrenalin. This results in an increase in heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate. After the threat is gone, it takes between 20 to 60 minutes for the body to return to its pre-arousal levels.

The fight-or-flight response is also 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.

Next week we will have part 2 of this article.


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