It looks like we may be able to add a less extreme stress response to the list of benefits associated with physical activity. A new study published in the journal Anxiety, Stress and Coping suggests that exercise may take some of the edge off of how people respond to stressful situations.
Interestingly, it appears that exercise has a stress-countering effect in both the long-term and the short-term. That is, people’s stress response may be lower immediately after exercise, but being in shape also seems to make people less reactive to stress more generally.
In the study, run by researchers from University of Westminster, people participated in a task that was explicitly designed to be psychologically stressful. Prior to the stress test, some of the participants went for a walk, during which time their heart rate was measured.
As it turned out, people who went for the walk had lower levels of cortisol (the “stress hormone”) during the subsequent stress test than those who didn’t go for a walk beforehand. This suggests a less extreme physical response to psychologically stressful situations.
Beyond that, though, people who had lower heart rates during the walk also had lower cortisol levels during the stress test. The researchers’ interpretation of this is that people who were more fit (and therefore had lower heart rates during the walk) had lower stress responses in the psychologically stressful task.
In other words, exercising regularly and getting in better shape may reduce people’s physiological response to psychologically stressful situations. Since the stress response has been linked to a range of health risks, this could be yet another way that exercise improves not only people’s mental health but also their physical health in the long-run.
There’s still more to be understood here in how exercise changes the way people respond to stress. But you can’t ever really go wrong by staying in shape, and it appears that among other things you may decrease your reactivity to stress.
Image: Flickr/A. Strakey