How exercise can help you cope!

By Raymond Onyango.

One of the inevitable consequences of the rapid urbanization the world has gone though in the last four or five decades is that life has by and large become much more stressful. Everyday, in every way we encounter stress, in the form of financial pressure to meet our obligations, pressure to exceed performance targets in the workplace or win a promotion, and several other social pressures that consistently keep our minds occupied from one day to the next. This constant exposure to high levels of stress naturally has its consequences including a growing body of scientific evidence that seemingly identifies stress as a key trigger leading to the onset of several lifestyle related diseases.

So what really happens when a person is exposed to chronic stress? Stress can be defined scientifically as the non-specific response of the body to any demands made upon it. Your body is hardwired to respond to stress in ways that were originally designed to protect you from predators and other aggressors. When you encounter a stressful situation with your boss at work for instance – your hypothalamus, a tiny region at the base of your brain prompts your adrenal glands to release a surge of adrenalin – a stress hormone. Adrenalin elevates your heart rate, raises your blood pressure and gives you an initial boost of energy. Your body also produces another hormone called cortisol, which increases sugars in the blood stream, increases your body’s sugar uptake and suppresses non essential functions such the immune, digestive and reproductive systems.  It also influences centers in your brain that control your mood, making you more aggressive and temperamental and possibly confrontational.

All this is great in the short term, if the objective is merely to overcome a potentially dangerous situation, but when it becomes a way of life as it indeed is for a growing majority of us, the consequences can be far reaching and potentially devastating. A common disease directly linked to stress is Hypertension or high blood pressure.  Other conditions linked to stress include high cholesterol levels; Irritable bowel syndrome and suppressed immunity to disease just to mention a few.  If you look at photographs of busy World leaders such as US president Barrack Obama, you can also clearly see how constant exposure to high stress can cause you to age rapidly. In just over four years in the white house, Barrack Obama has noticeably grown a robust head of grey hair, thanks to the intense demands of the office.

Exercise Helps

Exercise is one of the tools that has been proven to have a positively counteractive effect on the body to the ravages of stress. The main reason for this has to do with a certain class or hormones known as Endorphins.  Endorphins are produced when we exercise and they trigger a positive feeling of euphoria, known in fitness circles as the ‘runners high’.  This is perhaps the main reason why people who exercise regularly have a much more positive attitude towards life and greater capacity to process and cope with stress.

Beyond the production of feel good hormones, exercise has other far-reaching effects on your life as far as stress is concerned. Exercise provides a healthy outlet for emotional stress, that would other wise contribute to the misuse of substances such as alcohol and tobacco as coping mechanisms. Instead of heading for the nearest bar after work to drown your sorrows, you can go out and play a game of squash as a much more constructive and healthy outlet for what ever frustration or aggression you may have had to deal with that day.

The Dangers Of Alcohol As A Coping Mechanism

 Alcohol is a suppressant, meaning that it depresses central nervous system and induces lethargy, sluggishness and brings down your mood. Remember that when you are stressed your body is already pumped full of the hormone cortisol, which as we saw earlier, also depresses your mood as well as suppressing you immune, digestive and reproductive systems. What this means is that alcohol and stress are not great bedfellows. If anything increasing your consumption of alcohol in response to increased stress levels can only serve to hasten the onset of several lifestyle related conditions including obesity, high cholesterol. High blood pressure, liver cirrhosis and diabetes type 2 among several others.

Because stress is a constant part of our lives in this modern world, it is important that we equip our children with the means to cope with it positively and competently without recourse to short term solutions such as alcohol and tobacco.  Basic Physical education and Nutrition skills must continue to be a part of our basic primary school education, so that children can learn from an early age, how to live a healthy and physically active life.

Have a stress free week will you!