“Stress, in addition to being itself, was also the cause of itself, and the result of itself.” – Hans Selye
Why Does Exercise Reduce Stress? How Much Do you Need?
“It’s clear that exercise is beneficial for mental health. What’s not clear is how it works.” according to the Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Health letter.
In one study, researchers reported that clinically depressed adults who participated in regular exercise for three months had an improvement in symptoms similar to what might have been achieved with antidepressant drugs. Other studies have found that higher levels of physical activity are associated with fewer symptoms of depression in children as well as improvement in symptoms of adults with PTSD, panic and other anxiety disorders.
Possible explanations are that vigorous exercise can increase levels of endorphins, which are known to provide a sense of well-being and increased resistance to pain. Elite marathoners may experience a feeling of euphoria referred to as the
“runner’s high” and are often so insensitive to pain that they continue to run on broken bones that would normally bring them to an immediate halt. However, the old adage “no pain, no gain” no longer seems to be valid since many stress
reduction rewards can be achieved by walking for 20-30 minutes several times a week or other much milder physical activities that promote a sense of well being. The support provided by others in group exercise activities as well as
an improved sense of self–esteem associated with physical activity can also have powerful stress reduction effects.
Some people who are depressed or anxious may not have any desire to exercise but should be encouraged to do as
much as they can, even if it’s just a few minutes at a time. The reason is that this often leads them to increase their activities bit by bit as they experience more benefits. According to the Harvard Mental Health Letter, “You don’t have to have a program that includes 45 minutes of sweating and grunting and moaning . . . . A 10-minute walk is as good a place to start as anything else.”
In animal studies, rats who were allowed to exercise as much as they wanted to on a free running wheel showed less severe and fewer “fight or flight” responses to a painful stressor compared to litter mates in similar cages with a fixed wheel. The exercise group had lower levels of stress related hormones and reduced sympathetic nervous system responses that may explain these findings.As will be seen in a future Stress Bulletin, regular exercise also improves cardiovascular and immune system function.
Paul J. Rosch, M.D.,
Chairman of the Board, The American Institute of Stress
Harvard Mental Health Letter,
December 2005, Bartholomew JB, et al. Effects of Acute Exercise on Mood and
Well-Being in Patients with Major Depressive Disorder. Med Sci Sports Exerc.
2005;37:2032-2037. Fleshner M. Physical Activity Reduces the Negative Effects of
Stress on Behavior, Neural, Endocrine and Immune Responses: Med Sci Sports
Exerc. May, 2005; 37(5),. Supplement:S134 Greenwood BN, Kennedy S., Smith TP, et
al. Voluntary freewheel running selectively decreases the peripheral sympathetic
stress response by modulating activity of the central sympathetic circuit.
Neuroscience 2003; 120:269-281. Health And Stress Newsletter #1, #12, 1994 and
# 4, 2005.
Exercise Improves Mood
As noted in several of our Newsletters, regular physical exercise has been shown
to reduce depression and anxiety and to provide other stress reduction rewards that can improve cardiovascular and immune system function. In addition, aerobic exercise increases blood flow to the heart and causes dilation of small blood vessels that allows them to deliver more oxygen to muscle and other tissues. Because of its ability to prevent heart attacks exercise is the cornerstone of cardiac rehab programs and has been shown to lower blood pressure in some hypertensive patients.
Exercise can also improve immune system function. Teen-age girls who exercised regularly had fewer colds and other
infections than their more sedentary classmates. Aerobic exercise also bolsters immune system defenses in HIV patients. Weight lifting and other anaerobic exercises improve muscle tone and strength and both types of exercise can increase bone density that helps to prevent osteoporosis. Along with a proper diet, exercise can reduce body fat and weight.
Some of these benefits may be due to the ability of exercise to prevent stress-induced suppression of the immune system by its effects on the sympathetic nervous system. In one study, rats were housed in a cage with a mobile running wheel and were allowedto run whenever they wanted. Littermates were housed under identical circumstances but with a running wheel that did not move. After four weeks, both groups were exposed to a painful stressor and an antigen was administered
to determine immune system responses. Periodic blood tests showed that the production of protective immune system components was much higher in the exercise group of rats. This group also had a corresponding reduction in stress
hormone levels that could explain these effects. In addition, exercise was associated with less severe and fewer “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system responses to a painful stressor.
References: Fleshner, M.
Physical Activity and Stress Resistance: Sympathetic Nervous System Adaptations
Prevent Stress-Induced Immunosuppression. Exercise & Sport Sciences Reviews.
33(3):120-126, July 2005. Kennedy S, Smith L, Taro P, Fleshner M. Resting
Cellular and Physiological Effects of Freewheel Running. Med Sci Sports Exerc
2005: 37:79-83. Greenwood BN, Kennedy S., Smith TP, et al. Voluntary freewheel
running selectively decreases the peripheral sympathetic stress response by
modulating activity of the central sympathetic circuit. Neuroscience, 2003;
120:269-281. Health And Stress Newsletter #4,#5 2005, #7 2000, #5 1999.
How To Reduce the Stress of the Current Economic Crisis
Massive layoffs that seem likely to increase, the credit crunch, mortgage meltdown, soaring gasoline, heating oil and food costs, plunging stocks that threaten to wipe out savings, retirement plans and funds set aside for college tuition, have combined to create what one prominent authority called a “financial tsunami.” While the stress of the current economic disaster affects each of us and our families in different ways, six tips on how to lessen its harmful effects that can be helpful to many, include:
1. Review your current financial situation and develop ways to reduce or manage fixed future expenses more efficiently, and encourage family members to make suggestions.
2. Don’t dwell on past mistakes that can’t be corrected and avoid making new ones by consulting your accountant or financial advisor for recommendations before making decisions.
3. Limit round the clock news coverage of the negative state of the economy and water cooler and coffee break gossip of doomful predictions that may never come to fruition.
4. Beware of quick fix scams that promise to erase your debt or mortgage problems and talk directly to your credit card company, bank, or other creditors about finding ways to satisfy your obligations that provide mutual advantages. Banks don’t want the expense of maintaining unoccupied homes that are not likely to be sold and may be willing to make surprising concessions.
5. Remember that America has always recovered from similar financial disasters and that every cloud has its silver lining. The government is implementing a massive bailout program to alleviate some of the most pressing problems. Keep abreast of how your family or company can take advantage of this by seeking aid from appropriate agencies involved in such efforts.
6. Protect your physical and mental health by getting adequate sleep, regular exercise and periodic rest breaks. Social support is a powerful stress buster and family dinners, a walk in the park or visiting a museum together can prevent preoccupation with financial problems and provides numerous other benefits.
Massage Goes Mainstream
Massage therapy is becoming more popular as a technique to relieve stress as well as pain. Much of this trend stems from scientific studies showing its efficacy and safety as an alternative to medication that have helped to shed its image as a luxury indulgence or even cover for prostitution. As a result, companies are increasingly offering massage on site to workers and many doctors, dentists, chiropractors and even hospitals are incorporating massage therapy in their treatments or referrals.
The status of massage has also been boosted by celebrity testimonials such as Florida’s Governor Jeb Bush, who said, “I get massage therapy regularly, because a happy governor is a stress-free governor. I recommend massage therapy to the next Governor of the state of Florida.” This was in connection with again proclaiming Oct. 22 – 28 as Massage Therapy Awareness Week. Florida has officially recognized the practice of massage therapy since 1997, when Governor Lawton Chiles declared the first Massage Therapy Awareness Week. Florida, which has 24,000 licensed massage therapists with almost 100 practitioners or salons in the Fort Myers area alone. Florida is also one of a growing number of states that recognizes and regulates massage as a medical modality and has four area educational programs to teach applicants the necessary knowledge, skills and techniques to become licensed under the Florida Department of Health.
One facility offers both a Therapeutic Massage diploma, which requires approximately 45 weeks of study, and an Occupational Associate of Science degree in Massage Therapy, which requires an additional 15 weeks of instruction. Studies include skeletal and musculature anatomy as well as specific techniques such as deep tissue sports massage, medical massage and spa massage, all of which are designed to achieve different effects. Many therapists provide services at home. States vary with respect to their Licensure requirements for training, experience and passing specific examinations and several, including California, Colorado and Massachusetts have no requirements although municipalities may impose standards. There is a National Certification Board and you can check the requirements in your state as well as obtain a list of licensed massage therapists and their services at www.massageregister.com/ Additional information can be obtained from The American Massage Therapy Association www.amtamassage.org/, The Massage Therapy Foundation www.massagetherapyfoundation.org/ and other groups that focus on Swedish Massage, Hawaiian Lomi Lomi and other bodywork techniques.
A Comprehensive Stress Management Program
There are numerous stress management training programs available, most of which focus on specific techniques, including: meditation, yoga, progressive muscular relaxation, visual imagery aerobic exercises, listening to special music and various biofeedback devices. However, just as stress differs for each of us, no stress reduction strategy is a panacea. Any of the above approaches may be effective for some, but prove dull, boring and stressful when arbitrarily imposed on others. You have to find out what works for you and adhere to it because you enjoy it, rather than comply with something that you don’t look forward to. The best way to achieve this goal is to be made aware of what is available; bearing in mind that it is essential that this information comes from a reliable source.
The Best of Stress Management multimedia course does provide such a smorgasbord that satisfies these criteria. It consists of ten instructional CDs on meditation, biofeedback, guided imagery, breathing and exercise, and which also explain the role of emotions, heredity, healthy eating, spiritual influences, how drawings can help you gain valuable insight, and how to integrate this information to find out what is best for you. All of this is presented in a very clear and attractive fashion by established authorities. A biofeedback monitor and companion workbook are included to assist in evaluating your progress and access to on-line learning programs is also provided.
The Best of Stress Management program was designed by Dr. James Gordon, who is a Fellow of The American Institute of Stress, Director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, former Chairman of the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy and author of the recent best seller Unstuck. Other contributors include Herbert Benson, a Founding Trustee of the American Institute of Stress. This program has been used for over a decade and has proved to be so effective here and abroad, that it is being considered for our 2008 Award for Distinction and Innovation. As indicated to Dr. Gordon, I believe it should be updated to include a discussion of heart rate variability feedback, which is currently the most effective way to assess stress levels. More importantly, the recent availability of inexpensive hand held devices that provide real time feedback is a very cost effective way to quickly reduce stress and he is currently investigating one of these that has strong scientific support. For further information, see http://www.mblwellness.com/ais/
Promising New Treatment for Anxiety, Depression and Stress?
According to the National Institutes of Health, about 40 million Americans adults suffer from anxiety disorders, 15 million deal with major depression on a daily basis, and millions more have milder or intermittent symptoms of both. It is not generally appreciated that depression is the leading cause of disability in the 15 to 44 age group, and is responsible for ninety percent of the 32,500 suicides/year. Depression is much more prevalent in women, and while they attempt suicide two or three times more often than men, suicide deaths are actually four times higher in men, the highest rates being seen in white males over age 85.* What accounts for these disparities, and is it possible to predict who is at increased risk?
Since anxiety and depression frequently co-exist, many believe that they share one or more common causes. Researchers had previously demonstrated that people with severe depression had low levels of FGF2 (fibroblast growth factor 2) and other related chemicals. However, it was unclear whether these caused or resulted from the disease. To investigate this, the same group studied rats that had been selectively bred to exhibit high or low anxiety behaviors for over 19 generations. Consistent with the human depression studies, the researchers found much lower FGF2 levels in rats bred for high anxiety compared to those bred for low anxiety. In addition, when FGF2 was administered to high anxiety animals, their symptoms were sharply reduced, providing support for a causal role. Other researchers had previously shown that anxiety behaviors in rats could be reduced by making certain changes to their environment that would be considered similar to improving lifestyle changes for people. This study confirmed the beneficial effects of environmental enrichment and also showed that it increased FGF2 levels.
But how does FGF2 reduce anxiety and depression? It has long been known that depressed patients as well as those suffering from other stress related disorders like PTSD have memory problems, especially for recent events, similar to what is usually seen in the elderly. This memory deficit is associated with atrophy of the hippocampus, a portion of the brain responsible for storing and retrieving memories, and has been attributed to increased amounts of the stress hormone cortisol that are commonly seen in depression. It has been shown that depression decreases the production of new cells in the hippocampus and other parts of the brain, but this new study found that high and low anxiety animals produced the same number of brain cells. However, new brain cells in high anxiety animals did not survive nearly as long as those from the low anxiety strain, and this could also be reversed by FGF2 and environmental enrichment.
As the lead author said, ” This is surprising, as FGF2 and related molecules are known primarily for organizing the brain during development and repairing it after injury. We have discovered that FGF2 has two important new roles: it’s a genetic vulnerability factor for anxiety and a mediator for how the environment affects different individuals.” Another expert on anxiety and neurogenesis not involved in the study, was even more enthusiastic, noting, “This discovery may pave the way for new, more specific treatments for anxiety that will not be based on sedation – like currently prescribed drugs – but will instead fight the real cause of the disease.” While the clinical applications of this new discovery may be years away, environmental enrichment programs that are much safer and in some cases more effective than drugs are readily available, and one has helped over a million people with anxiety and depression over the past decade.**
Perez JA, Clinton SM et al. A New Role for FGF2 as an Endogenous Inhibitor of Anxiety. The Journal of Neuroscience, May 13, 2009, 29(19):6379-6387
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