Don’t sweat the small stuff: Exercise is Medicine® for stress relief

By Alison Ludzki

April is Stress Awareness Month

April is a natural fit for Stress Awareness Month, playing host to inevitable final exams and tax season. But is there a way to avoid the stress that comes along with them?

Stress means different things to different people, making it hard to define. Most importantly, stress is a hormonal response to danger. However, stress can also occur in response to not-so-dangerous occasions in our day-to-day lives, including routine events like work, family interactions, and other daily responsibilities. When these stressors are ongoing, they can have physical and mental health consequences.

People respond to stress differently, both physically and emotionally. The stress response is ‘fight or flight’ – an innate response to increase your chances of short-term survival through changes like increased pulse, breathing, and muscle contraction while other functions, like the immune and digestive systems, are suppressed. For this reason, if stress is sustained over time, it can result in increased risk of infection, sleep problems, anxiety, and even heart disease and diabetes. However, there are coping strategies to relieve these symptoms. Among many useful strategies, both the National Institutes for Health and the Anxiety and Depression Association of America have endorsed exercise as a stress management technique. Given its availability and affordability, exercise is a promising treatment for stress.

Exercise for stress reduction

We all know people who use exercise to manage their stress, from the irritated coworker who cuts out of work to hit the gym, to the neighbor who can’t skip their morning run. However, while there is countless evidence that exercise can help treat chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, its effects on stress are less known. Plenty of population-level data have linked physical activity to lower stress, but this leads to the “chicken or the egg” question: does exercise reduce stress, or are less-stressed people more likely to exercise? Other limitations of studies to date include relying on participants to report their own exercise, and using stress tests that might not reflect real life scenarios.

Recent work by a group in Germany evaluated whether an exercise program tempered the stress response. They enrolled a group of engineering students in a 20 week controlled exercise program, and compared their stress response during an exam to their peers who did not exercise. They found a lower stress response in the group who exercised (through heart rate measurements). Just like freezing temperatures begin to seem warmer (or not-so-bad!) by the end of winter, it may be possible to adjust to stress through regular exposures like exercise.

The World Health Organization has found that over 1 in 5 adults around the world do not exercise enough to receive meaningful health benefits. Guidelines recommend 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity each week. Yet there are many barriers to physical activity, not the least of which is knowledge. Given the evidence for the benefits of exercise, Exercise is Medicine® was launched in 2007 to educate healthcare professionals to help their patients get active.

Exercise is Medicine(R)

Exercise is Medicine® (EIM) is now a global program working to increase exercise prescription for the prevention and treatment of disease. The organization provides resources to health care practitioners, community members, and colleges and universities, based on original research regarding exercise prescription. Still in its early stages, the program is developing strategies to provide exercise advice, while navigating barriers like limited insurance coverage for visits to exercise professionals. The program has much helpful information available on its website. Their Rx for Health Series provides free basic guidelines for exercise to the general public, including information on exercising with anxiety and depression.

Exercise is Medicine(R) at the University of Michigan

When it comes to local resources, the University of Michigan has recently established an EIM On Campus team, led by Movement Science student Emily Krueger. In her words, the “goals for EIM at UM are to (1) promote physical activity on campus for students, faculty, and staff, (2) encourage physicians to assess physical activity as a vital sign and give exercise as a prescription to patients, and (3) to establish a referral system to link clinical practice with fitness professionals and existing community resources for patients to easily fill exercise prescriptions and engage in physical activity”. You can find more information on EIM at UM on Facebook or follow them on Twitter.

With some UM departments hosting stress and fitness workshops, and MHealthy’s Stress Management Program, EIM is just one of several local initiatives promoting exercise for stress management and overall health. So, this month, why not take advantage of these stress-busting tips? Your body and mind will thank you for it!

About the author

head shot-2Alison did her undergraduate in Kinesiology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. As a competitive runner, her academic interest focused on human performance. Through her Master’s studies in Guelph, Ontario, she became interested in clinical research while studying muscle metabolism in human and rodent models. In Guelph, she started the local Exercise is Medicine group, which seeks to connect researchers with health care providers to give them the tools to prescribe exercise for the treatment and prevention of disease. This inspired her to make knowledge translation a part of her career, and started her interest in science writing as a way to do that. Alison is currently a PhD student in the Substrate Metabolism Lab in the school of Kinesiology, where she studies the effects of diet and exercise on whole body and cellular health in humans. She is seeking a career in clinical research and knowledge translation.

Read all posts by Alison here.

 

 

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