Everybody feels stressed at some point. But how do we deal with it? 75% of Australians admit that stress adversely effects their physical health and 64% report an impact on their mental health (APA, 2014). For 86% of us, watching TV or movies is our chosen coping strategy for stress and only 55% of us are getting an adequate amount of physical activity (Australian Health Survey 2011-12). So exercise, mood and stress; what’s the link? Here’s the science to support why exercise should be our go-to for those stressful situations.
You know those days where you wake up in the morning, a bunch of crazy happens and then you go to sleep (way too late)… Maybe some of this feels familiar; you’re up to your eye balls in reports at work. The kids have basketball training tonight. You forgot to get dinner out. It’s your mum’s birthday next week. You said you would help the school with their fundraiser this Friday. You promised your friend you would catch up for lunch on the weekend. You still haven’t found time to exercise, like you planned. Feeling stressed? How’s your mood?
A Brief Bio About Stress
Stress comes in many shapes and sizes, acute and chronic; social stress, physical stress, metabolic stress… just to name a few.
There is a psychological state of stress, and a physiological response to stress – it’s important to distinguish these. One is the external stressors of life, such as a looming deadline at work. The other is our internal state of stress, like when we feel we are stressed out of our minds and cannot think straight!
I want to talk about how we can manipulate one by manipulating the other.
The body’s stress response is a built-in gift from evolution, without it we wouldn’t be here today. This complex alarm system (the panic button being the amygdala), is more commonly known as the fight of flight response.
I’m going to try and explain how this process actually works in our brain using cute pictures, it gets a bit nerdy, but stick with me.
The Neurophysiology of Stress (the simple version)
Basically, the short version is: our amygdala signals the adrenal gland to release a few different hormones, such as adrenaline, which causes increases in blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing. These hormones also act on the pituitary gland which triggers the release of cortisol into our immune system. The amygdala then signals the hippocampus to start recording memories (so we remember to avoid this in future), and the prefrontal cortex assesses whether this is an actual threat requiring action.
Humans are unique in the fact that danger doesn’t have to be clear and present to illicit a stress response, we can create it ourselves. The mind is so powerful we can actually set off our stress response just by imagining we’re in a stressful situation. You see how this can start to get unhealthy…
But just as we can get ourselves into a stressful state, we can get ourselves out.
The purpose of the fight-or-flight response is to mobilise us to act, so physical activity is the natural way to prevent the negative consequences of stress. When we exercise in response to stress, we’re doing what human beings have evolved to do over the past several million years.
Your Prescription for exercise, mood and stress
If I prescribe you 1 x exercise session per day, you should see a reduction in stress symptoms and an improvement in mood immediately…
Why is that?
Now that you’re all over the neurophysiological mechanisms that are behind the stress we feel, how exactly does exercise improve our mood and reduce our stress?
- Exercise triggers the production of more insulin receptors, thus lowering blood glucose levels
- Exercise produces FGF-2 and VEGF which build new capillaries and expand the vascular system in the brain
- Exercise increases BDNF production, which is responsible for neurogenesis: the creation of new neurons
- Exercise increases serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine (feel good hormones!)
And on a physiological level, exercise can improve the stress we feel in our bodies by:
- Relaxing the resting tension of muscle spindles, breaking the stress-feedback loop to the brain
- Increasing the efficiency of the cardiovascular system, lowering blood pressure
Exercise does a whole range of juicy things to our body and our mind, and it’s virtually impossible to impact one without impacting the other – now you see why!
Just keep in mind that the more stress you have, the more your body needs to move to keep your brain running smoothly.
If you’re interested in reading more about this, pick up a copy of Psychiatrist, John Ratey’s book: SPARK; the revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain. This blog is based on the concepts discussed in Chapter 3; Stress. It’s full of stories and fascinating information about the connections between exercise and your brain, in an easily digestible format.
About the author
How is this week going for you? I hope you’ve had a great Christmas, and that you are excited for the year ahead! For many of us this time of year also presents an interesting struggle, as we start to think about the things we would like to do differently next year, while indulging in behaviours that may be in contradiction to those goals?! In the following few paragraphs I’d like to provide you with a few insights that will help you make healthy choices despite the environment and society around you making it difficult to do so!
In my last blog we focused on a process to help you identify the right MOTIVATION and reason for change. After all, I’m sure that everyone reading this blog has a very good idea of what we should eat, what we should (or shouldn’t) drink, what’s good for us, what’s bad for us, what to avoid, etc. Yet, this knowledge alone is clearly not enough to help us and empower us to make better choices. So the very first thing we should aim to do, is to spend time working out what we want and why we want it. So if you haven’t already, I strongly encourage you to read that blog and spend some time answering the questions it poses. The answers you come up with, and the concepts below will assist you to make healthy choices based on current knowledge, but that work for YOU.
Once you have decided what it is you want to achieve and why, and have also identified your main barriers, you will have completed the most important part of the journey! Now we will explore some strong external forces that are likely to be working against you. Understand these will help you not be influenced by them!
Are your behaviours being ‘nudged’ away from your ideal healthy choices?
The concept of a ‘nudge‘, from Nudge Theory, refers to any aspect of ‘choice architecture’ (the way in which choices can be presented to consumers to impact choice) that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without actually forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. This concept is so powerful, that it won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2017. It suggests that we are influenced by the choices given to us, even if they are subtle and we have the ability to chose an alternative.
For example, when you go and get your lunch, what do you see first? Do you see the salad or do you see the chips? That will very strongly influence what you end up eating. This is not always a ‘Machiavellian’ design, as we might say is the placing of lollies and chocolates at a supermarket checkout to tempt our kids while we are waiting to be served! Sometimes they are basic business choices, with good intentions at heart made by commercial inertia. An example of this may be the local café, which understands you are busy and have a short lunch break, so they place the ready made rolls in the most visible spot as you enter the shop…
How can we avoid this social engineering so you can make healthy choices?
One of the strategies we suggest in this scenario, is for you to decide what you are going to have before you get there! Don’t wait to be in the café to make a choice… the options to tempt you are too powerful!!
You should know what your next meal is, and where it’s going to come from… otherwise you risk being dictated to by external factors.
Is your social circle subtly influencing your choices?
Social norms are one of the very powerful forces in behaviour. We are influenced by what other people are doing. Not what we are told we are supposed to do – If everybody else is eating more or eating a certain kind of food, we will eat more of it, right?
If your friends are active, you are more likely to want to join them on that Mt Lofty hike. On the flip side, if they are all starting to put on weight, you are more likely to as well! Our social circles, our community, have a ‘recalibrating’ effect on our understanding of what is normal or not, hence having a very powerful influence on our behaviour.
It’s not easy to swim against the flow. The currents set by our environment (shops, etc.) and by our social networks are strong. But our success depends on it! We are here to help, and hopefully this piece has shone the light on a couple of areas that were lurking in the dark.
Here’s to a successful, fun, healthy and fulfilling 2018! Happy new Years!!
If you’ve followed iNform’s blogs and social media we quite often comment that we are “Made to Move”. However, why do we (I’m talking society as a whole) find it so hard to get out and be active? Why is it so easy to be lazy? Well it seems our drive toward sedentarism is not a new thing. We’ve just happened to get really good at it in recent years!
You see the evolution of us humans has been occurring for hundreds of thousands of years and for around 95% of this time we were hunters and gatherers of our food. During this time we used to walk 15-20 km per day, mainly in search for food (Cordain et al., 1998). We are still physiologically built for this environment, hence we were made to move.
Evolution may drive our desire to be lazy
However, like most animals, we have an in built drive to maximising our energy intake while minimising our expenditure and become as lazy as possible. We needed to be efficient at gathering our food, but in the days of hunting and gathering it was most efficient to stay on the move (Park, 1988). Even the success of a tribe (as expressed by their fertility rates) were greater if they moved more (Surovell, 2000).
Our drive for dopamine kept us on the move
So during this time our physiology worked for us. The increase in protein from hunting, led to increased dopamine production, which led to brain development (Previc, 1999). Now dopamine is a hormone that drives us to explore and increases our desire to move and do things. This drive is what gives us the desire to travel and see the world. However in today’s environment this involves very little physical activity!
Interestingly a lack of dopamine production and sensitivity leads to decreased physical activity in animal studies (Ingram, 2000). Scientists have also found the “lazy gene” in rodents which decreases the amount of dopamine receptors making you less like to enjoy the exploratory movement benefits of dopamine (http://ajpregu.physiology.org/content/early/2013/03/28/ajpregu.00581.2012).
Now if we go back to our hunting and gathering days, exercise would have been in the form of chase hunting. This involved running with a prey until it dropped of exhaustion. Interestingly this type of exercise would have further increased our dopamine levels (Previc, 1999). This positive feedback loop was thought to help us develop into the intelligent species we are today!
So what happened, why did we become so lazy?
Why do so many of us lack the motivation to move? You see dopamine feeds on itself. It increases when you move more but to get it’s feel good exploratory effects you need to start moving! And in today’s environment we no longer need to move to survive!
And where did it all go wrong? As I stated above, most creatures are hardwired to conserve energy, and around 40,000 years ago we learnt that rather than adapting to our environment we could manipulate the environment to suit us. This period was toward the end of the Ice Age and as the Earth warmed cereal crops flourished. By 10,000 years ago we started to get really good at farming and hence the agricultural revolution began (Phelps, 1994).
This meant that we could stay in one place and tend to our crops. We could also store surplus grains for the winter. Where once our hunting and gathering tribes would have mobile camps, humans were now able to establish more permanent housing structures and areas to congregate, and create barriers to keep predators and the pressures of external nature away (Mumford, 1956).
Now over time we’ve gradually become better and better at food production, needing less physical energy to produce. The industrial revolution brought the machines that would end up doing the work for us. Now, the vast majority of us, no longer need to expend energy to get our food and being lazy has become an option.
Fighting our drive to become lazy
All of this came about due to our innate drive to conserve energy in order for us to feel safe and secure. It has now got the the point where high energy food is an abundance and we have to do very little to get it. We can literally sit in the comfort of our homes (even work from home like I’m currently doing!) and order our food to be delivered to us.
Think of how much movement you need to do in the day. Once it was part of life in order to survive but now movement, for most people is a choice. The problem being is that our physiological systems and hence our physical health are built in a stone-age time of when we were “made to move”.
Without thinking, our hardwiring will drive us to be as sedentary as possible and we now have the physical environment to allow us to do this. So this choice to move now needs to be a conscious one. What we do have going in our favour though is the dopaminergic system that feeds on itself. Once we start moving and exercising, we’ll be driven to do more, and as a consequence we’ll improve our brain function and overall health.
So your choice is simple.
Either you sit back and let this innate drive toward laziness and physical environment we’re creating push you toward and enclosed sedentary lifestyle; OR, you get back to your hunting and gathering roots and choose to move more and explore this world we live in!
Cordain, L., Gotshall, R. W., Boyd Eaton, S., & Boyd Eaton III, S. (1998). Physical activity, energy expenditure and fitness: An evolutionary perspective. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 19, 328-335.
Ingram, D. K. (2000). Age-related decline in physical activity: Generalization to nonhumans. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 32(9), 1623-1629.
Mumford, L. (1956). The natural history of urbanization. In W. L. Thomas (Ed.), Man’s role in changing the face of the earth (pp. 382-400). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Park, R. J. (1988). How active were early populations? Or squeezing the fossil record. In R. M. Malina & H. M. Eckert (Eds.), Physical activity in early and modern populations: American Academy of Physical Education papers No. 21 (pp. 13-21). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Phelps, M. T. (1994). How important is the role of intelligence in the rise of civilization? Mankind Quarterly, 34(4), 287-296.
Previc, F. H. (1999). Dopamine and the origins of human intelligence. Brain and Cognition., 41(3), 299-350.
Roberts, M.D., Brown, J.D., Company, J.M., Oberle, L.P., Heese, A.J., Toedebusch, R.G., Wells, K.D., Cruthirds, C.L., Knouse, J.A., Ferreira, J.A.,Childs, T.E., Brown, M., Booth, F.W. (2013). Phenotypic and molecular differences between rats selectively bred to voluntarily run high vs. low nightly distances American Journal of Physiology – Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, 304(11) R1024-R1035.
Surovell, T. A. (2000). Early Paleoindian women, children, mobility, and fertility. American Antiquity, 65(3), 493-508.
Are you mentally tough enough to complete an ultra-marathon? It probably comes as no surprise that evidence is mounting that your mental capacity has a say in your success or failure at such a goal. But the specific cognitive abilities that determine your outcome may be a surprise to you.
How do you score on inhibitory control?
A 2015 study by Cona et al found that there were correlations between certain cognitive abilities and performance of an ultra marathon running event (an 80km race in this instance). The runners that performed better in the race also outperformed the slower runners in tasks that challenged their inhibitory control. There are lots of online tests for challenging your own inhibitory control – just google ‘Stroop Test’ and you will come up with lots of examples. I did the one on the Psytoolkit website and scored a Stroop effect of 220ms. Unfortunately there are many variations on the Stroop test and scoring systems, so normative data does not exist to my knowledge. You can try it yourself here:- http://www.psytoolkit.org/lessons/stroop.html.
So what is inhibitory control?
It is basically the ability to inhibit a natural or habitual response in preference for another that is more congruent with a specific goal. In the Stroop test, this often requires the participant to name the ink colour of a word that may be representative, or contradictory to that colour. For example, the word ‘green’ may appear in red ink- so your time-taken to answer ‘red’ is measured. The participant is asked to repeat this process a large number of times and their average response time (and accuracy) is measured.
So how does this translate to running performance?
So you can resist the impulse to answer ‘green’ when the ink is red – so what!? When we run long distances, we are constantly making choices and resisting impulses. When the going gets tough, our instinct is to stop, or slow down. But this may be incongruent with our goal, which could be to get a personal best. Those with a greater ability in inhibitory control may be able to resist this urge to slow down or stop because they rank their goal as a higher priority than that urge. They sacrifice an immediate reward for the delayed reward which is to finish with their best possible time. Runners with lower levels of inhibitory control may be more likely to succumb to the urge to stop so that they can enjoy an immediate pay-off for their choice (the pain stops).
So what can you do about this? There is evidence that inhibitory control can be improved with training (Berkman et al, 2014) but there is insufficient evidence that improvements in the lab cross-over into other aspects of life. This field is certainly a ‘watch-this-space’ topic, so I will. In the meantime, when the going gets tough on my next long run, I’ll keep reminding myself of what the ultimate goal is, and train my mind on that.
Berkman, Elliot T., Lauren E. Kahn, and Junaid S. Merchant. “Training-induced changes in inhibitory control network activity.” Journal of Neuroscience 34.1 (2014): 149-157.
Cona, G., Cavazzana, A., Paoli, A., Marcolin, G., Grainer, A., & Bisiacchi, P. S. (2015). It’s a matter of mind! Cognitive functioning predicts the athletic performance in ultra-marathon runners. PloS one, 10(7), e0132943
There is no shortage of people who want to tell you running is bad for you especially if you’re a beginner runner. ‘It wrecks your knees!’ they proclaim. I bet you anyone who has said that to you doesn’t run themselves. I do run, and do believe that almost anyone can run comfortably and enjoyably, and enhance their health (heart, bone, brain) in the process.
So here are my 3 Tips For a Beginner Runner To Start On The Right Foot
1. Get your cadence right!
This is really simple – download a metronome app from your favourite app store (there are lots for free that will be perfect). Set it to 180 beats/min. Jog on the spot to the rhythm of the metronome. See if you can maintain this for 1 minute. Rest, repeat, rest, repeat. If you pull up well from this the next day, do it again. Repeat this as frequently as you can for three weeks. The purpose of this exercise is twofold: First, to help program your brain to run at a high turnover. This will decrease impact stress. Second, it will help condition your feet, ankles, calves, knees and hips for the impact of running.
2. Run Quietly
When you have completed your three weeks running on the spot you are ready to start moving forward. But you must do this quietly! Tread lightly on the ground. Take note of the noise your feet make when they impact- do they slap, or stroke the ground? Aim to impact the ground softly – and when you start to get heavy, walk. Also, you shouldn’t be huffing and puffing yet. Aim to run easily, and when the lungs start to struggle, walk. The first few months of running should be about getting comfortable with running – not getting a hardcore cardio blow-out (do that on a bike!).
3. Be Patient
If you are taking running up as an adult, who may not have run for 20 years, be realistic. Give yourself 6 months before you start thinking about tackling an event. Your body will adapt to running if you are conservative, but consistent. Aim to run every second day, even if it is just a short lap around the block. You will have some ups and downs, but the improvement will come if you are patient. You will eventually find the running ‘gear’ that you can click into and the kms will just glide away.
We are here if you need us!
At iNform we have helped hundreds of people begin to run, from people that want to run around the park with their kids, to those wanting to tackle a marathon. If you want to get running the best way possible, give us a call!
I’m not surprised you may not have enough time to exercise, or to look after yourself. It is very clear that our society has it’s reward system back to front; despite the evident negative outcomes such as lack of energy and stiff bodies. I’d like to take this opportunity to boldly share with you our mission at iNform to push back against this tide and urge society to start rewarding differently, more smartly. We will be fighting the status quo for your health!
Invest a small amount in exercise and be rewarded with productivity
The research is very clear that when we invest a small amount of time out of the day for some brisk exercise, we get paid back in stamina and the ability to do more. Yet, our society does not reward this “timeout”. In executive circles, constant pressure to perform, whispers are hard to ignore that time spent at the gym or working-out is a waste of productive time. We have all bought this lie.
So, here’s a simple challenge that will pay you a solid dividend. Find 20 minutes before you leave for work in the morning, or build a half hour break time into your day, treat it as Stephen Covey’s Urgent And Important task, and get in a walk or a run or a cycle or climbing of stairs. Leave a few minutes for a shower if you have one at the office. Start this without telling the world about it. Let them see you start.
And here is what you’ll notice:
People will ask what you are doing and why. This will give you the chance to let them know that you are re-engineering the way our society rewards our behaviours.
You are doing this because everyone around you and the Australian economy, will stand to benefit from a fitter population (and workforce) with sharper thoughts and better stamina.
It all starts by finding any means possible for turning our backs on old habits and putting our backs into smarter efforts that will yield a bigger prize that we’ll all be around longer to enjoy.
Why should we reward ourselves?
Smarter rewards systems are needed in family time too! In the early decades of preparing for and then building a family, where do most of us place our health in the order of tasks and priorities? Nowadays, the ever-growing list of demands means that many women and men who run households and families, put others before themselves at a great and hidden cost.
The cost is all those moments when exhaustion has robbed us of exercise or tight finances have robbed us of health options like exercise physiologists or gym memberships.
There is just not enough time to go around and people with strong parental instincts yield to our inbuilt reward system of giving us an endorphin rush when we sacrifice ourselves for our loved ones. However, that healthy reward system evolved during a time of unavoidable physical labour.
So, we have a battle ahead, but evidence-based approaches to short, structured fitness plans like we provide at iNform Health and Fitness Solutions can give back to your body the strength and capacity it was always destined to have.
Yes, clocks can be turned back, despite all the momentum that tries to pull us away from taking personal time out to invest in our health. So come and join us in fighting the status quo for your health!