“All things are poison and nothing is without poison; only the dose makes a thing not a poison.” – Paracelsus
What are we to do when stress is getting the best of us?
The first piece of advice we get is the “well, you need to reduce your stress” comment followed by… nothing.
Ever notice that you rarely get much in the ways of HOW to reduce your stress levels?
What’s the second recommendation you get?
Typically, the answer is you need to get more exercise.
But wait a minute. Exercise is just more stress, isn’t it?
Well, there are two types of stress. Stress that is imposed upon us carries with it negative health consequences. As Dr. Kelly McGonigal explains in The Upside of Stress, when we control the where, when, and how of exercise, it doesn’t have the same impact as stress from unfortunate circumstances.
The real magic of exercise is what happens afterward. As we recover from the acute challenge of exercise, all of your systems gain strength and become more resilient. Exercise mobilizes energy, makes our brain work more efficiently, and actually enhances our ability to learn new things.
Building aerobic capacity assures adequate energy to meet our activity and exercise needs. Physical activity becomes less difficult and limits the impact of our stress response. We’re less likely to default to a limited movement repertoire, and better yet, less likely to experience pain.
The act of performing aerobic exercise directly influences our stress response. As a side effect of our increasing heart rate during exercise, our heart secretes a hormone called atrial natrieuretic peptide. When this hormone reaches the brain, it directly reduces the impact of the stress response. Additionally, aerobic exercise promotes reduced tension in your muscles, which further reduces the influence of the stress response.
In physical therapy, our movement system must be re-educated to access new movements, and increasing aerobic capacity accelerates our ability to learn movements.
Aerobic exercise increases production of a molecule called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) in the hippocampus, the area of the brain that influences learning and memory. This stimulates the development of new neurons in the brain and helps maintain the health of existing neurons. More neurons equals more useful connections between neurons which, in turn, promotes easier and faster learning. All of this from some simple aerobic exercise!
How hard do we need to work to see benefits in stress reduction, learning, and pain reduction? Not as hard as you may think. You can use a simple “Talk Test” to measure how hard to work (see the video below). Try to start with 15-20 minutes of activity and build from there.
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