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
Practical tips to reduce pain
Now understanding what pain is and how it protects us is useful, but now I would like to use this information to give some practical tips to reduce pain.
In Part 1 of this blog series we learnt that we need pain to survive, to avoid danger and protect us from injury. However in Part 2 we learnt that the protective response from an injury, such as muscle tightness and weakness can persist long after our tissue has healed. This can lead to pain being present for much longer than needed.
So if your pain has persisted for longer than the usual tissue healing time (around 3-6 months), then it might be useful to read below:
Tips to reduce pain:
Find movements that you feel comfortable with and progress slowly.
We know that pain is the result of our brain feeling as though we’ve pushed our tissue tolerance above a certain threshold (Butler & Moseley, 2013). So it’s firstly important to know where that threshold is at and gradually challenge this over time. For example, if your back gets sore after 10 minutes of continuous walking, start with less. Then you gradually build this up minute by minute until you get to an amount you’re happy with.
Now please understand, you will experience flare ups from time to time. However, it’s important not to worry about this. Unless there has been another injury/trauma (you will generally feel this at the time), these flare ups in pain are just a way of your brain telling you that you need to pull it back a bit. Go back to what was previously comfortable and then progress slowly once more.
Train your brain before you train your body
At times movement may be too much. You may know what types of movement give you pain. Quite often these movements are very similar to the movement that may have created your injury in the first place. So why not start with imagining the movement?
Motor skills studies show that just by imagining movements you can improve them. One in particular showed that basketballers who imagined free throws improved just as much as those that physically performed the task (Richardson, 1967).
Now when it comes to pain it’s important to imagine the movement pain free and in a relaxed state. Sometimes just thinking about an aggravating movement can make you feel anxious. It may bring up emotions that you need to recognise to move on. In this case you may need to relax yourself once more before you return to imagining the movement.
Distraction can be a great way to reduce pain
Our levels of pain are amplified in the brain when we focus on them. It makes sense that when we add other stimuli it gives your brain more to process therefore it decreases the pain stimuli (Schreiber et al, 2014).
Distraction is a great way to do this. Some things to consider while you exercise are listening to music, changing your visual input (closing your eyes or using mirrors), performing cognitive tasks (like crosswords/sudoku), adding balance (standing on one leg or moving on an unstable surface), and changing your environment (try outdoors, indoors or in water).
Find an aerobic exercise that suits you and perform it regularly
Now I understand that sometimes when you’re in pain it’s hard to find an aerobic form of exercise that is tolerable. However, research shows that if you can tolerate it (even if it produces a 6/10 pain level), doing it regularly will reduce your pain. This is because aerobic exercise has been shown to reduce your central immune response via the glial cells (Cobianchi, et al, 2017). People with chronic pain can quite often have a hypersensitive central immune system. When this system is always on it creates an inflammatory response, even when it’s not needed. So when you exercise is down regulates this response, leading to less inflammation and in turn reduces pain.
Choose fun, enjoyable activities with people you love!
Finally, one of my favourite pieces of advice is to find activities and movements you love! Not only will this help you reduce pain, we know that people who have hobbies and activities they enjoy typically live longer (and happier) than those who don’t (Fushiki et al, 2012).
In our brainstem we have certain areas that pick up pleasure and displeasure. Interestingly the area of displeasure is closely associated with areas of the brain that detect and produce pain. The pleasure centre does not have this relationship but is closely related to movement and attraction. So let’s use this to our advantage and find activities you actually want to do. It may even help you stay motivated to doing things that aren’t as pleasurable (such as the homework exercises your exercise physiologist gives you), so long as you can relate it to the activity you love (for me this activity is trail running!).
So there you go. Hopefully I’ve given you some practical ideas to reduce your pain and help you get back to doing the things you love doing. Obviously if you need any help with any of the tips above, we are alway here to help you with your journey free of pain.
Butler, D.S., & Moseley, G.L. (2013). Explain Pain (2nd Ed). Adelaide: Noigroup Publications
Cobianchi, S., Arbat-Plana, A., López-Álvarez, V. M., & Navarro, X. (2017). Neuroprotective Effects of Exercise Treatments After Injury: The Dual Role of Neurotrophic Factors. Current Neuropharmacology, 15(4), 495–518. http://doi.org/10.2174/1570159X14666160330105132
Fushiki, Y., Ohnishi, H., Sakauchi, F., Oura, A., & Mori, M. (2012). Relationship of Hobby Activities With Mortality and Frailty Among Community-Dwelling Elderly Adults: Results of a Follow-up Study in Japan. Journal of Epidemiology, 22(4), 340–347. http://doi.org/10.2188/jea.JE20110057
Richardson, A.. (1967) Mental Practice: A Review & Discussion Parts 1 & 2, Research Quarterly. American Association for Health, Physical Education and Recreation. Volume 38, Issue 1.
Schreiber, K.L., Campbell, C., Martel, M.O., Greenbaum, S., Wasan, A.D., Borsook, D., Jamison, R.N., & Edwards, R.R. (2014) Distraction Analgesia in Chronic Pain Patients: The Impact of Catastrophizing. Anesthesiology;121(6):1292-1301. doi: 10.1097/ALN.0000000000000465.
With summer just around the corner many of us are starting to think about easing ourselves back into our old exercise routines. Whether it be to lose a couple of kilos, or to ensure we feel just more comfortable spending time at the beach, most are slowly starting to climb back into their running shoes or slide back onto their bike seats.
But what if I were to suggest that this type of exercise (as in exercise of the cardio variety) may not be the best way to promote changes in the way we look or feel? While it may go against somewhat ‘traditional recommendations’, strength training is an excellent means of exercise that can cause HUGE changes in the way we look. This makes it the perfect type of training to complement our cardiovascular exercise.
Strength training can help build lean muscle
A sentence I hear on a very regular basis when discussing training or body composition goals goes a little something like this: “I don’t want to get big and bulky, I just want to ‘tone’ up”. To be honest, this thought process is extremely common for those looking to get into the weights room seriously for the first time. Which is why I then proceed to explain that weight training will not make you ‘big and bulky.’ It is actually extremely difficult to put on large amounts of muscle mass (particularly for females).
*Just quickly, if you want reassurance that this is the case, take a look at 99% of regular gym goers. Many look fit and healthy, while very few look like professional bodybuilders (even despite their best efforts).
In fact, the ‘toned’ look that many train for is actually a matter of building some muscle while losing some fat, resulting in more visible muscle definition – pretty simple really. So with all this in mind, strength training builds muscle tissue, which is integral to making large changes in body composition.
Strength training can increase our metabolism
As an added bonus, the process of building muscle – no matter how small the amount – can have a huge impact on our ability to lose weight.
You see, muscle is highly metabolic tissue, meaning that it actually requires energy to survive (it uses the energy we obtain from food). With this in mind, by increasing the amount of muscle mass we have on our body (even slightly), we can increase the amount of energy we burn each and every day – irrespective of the exercise we perform that day!
By adding some lean muscle tissue you can literally increase the amount of energy you burn when you’re on the couch or at work – which makes it much easier to promote weight loss in both the short and long term.
All it takes is performing some form of strength training 2-3 times per week.
Strength training can help us burn a heap of energy
Now, in addition to increasing our metabolism, strength training is also an effective means of promoting weight loss as is quite taxing. Strength training is a challenging form of exercise, and as such performing a single session will use a heap of energy. But where strength training differs from more traditional forms of exercise, is that it has a slightly longer recovery period associated. It is commonly accepted that muscle takes anywhere between 24 and 72 hours to completely recover after a workout (this recovery time is dependent on the intensity and volume of work performed during that training session).
During this entire period, the body is using additional energy to recover from our workout.
As a result, strength training can help us lose weight by increasing our energy expenditure both during, and after, our training session.
Bonus: Strength training helps you function every single day.
While this isn’t necessarily related to making any changes in our body composition, it is still certainly a large positive!
Becoming stronger, and through this improving our ability to function on a day to day basis, is extremely rewarding. It not only provides a clear demonstration that all our hard work in the gym is paying off, but also makes life in a physical sense much easier.
Whether it means being able to move your own furniture, pick up children without a second thought, or bring your groceries in from the car in a single trip, it doesn’t really matter – getting stronger will help you in every aspect of your life.
Take away message
When it comes to bang for your buck exercise strength training is hands down our best option. It have some great effects on our body composition, it can also improve our strength and function – both of which are essential to improving ability to get through the day.
With this in mind, performing weight training 2-3 times per week is ideal to stimulate both large increases in strength and massive changes in body composition. If you have any questions (or maybe don’t know where to start), feel free to book in with us today, so you can draw a line in the sand and get started.
Dolezal, Brett A., et al. “Muscle damage and resting metabolic rate after acute resistance exercise with an eccentric overload.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 32.7 (2000): 1202-1207.
Kraemer, William J., et al. “Effect of resistance training on women’s strength/power and occupational performances.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 33.6 (2001): 1011-1025.
Staron, R. S., et al. “Skeletal muscle adaptations during early phase of heavy-resistance training in men and women.” Journal of applied physiology 76.3 (1994): 1247-1255.
Zurlo, Francesco, et al. “Skeletal muscle metabolism is a major determinant of resting energy expenditure.” Journal of Clinical Investigation 86.5 (1990): 1423.
“Give me abdominal exercises to lose fat around my stomach! Can I do triceps exercises to get rid of my granny arms? These are statements or questions I have heard more times than I can count. It is a question steeped in marketing, wishful thinking and a desire for that society driven “six-pack” and or “buns of steel.” The “spot reduction” theory is based around the act of selectively reducing fatty deposits in targeted areas by exercising the specific area. It seems logical to an extent. If a client works a muscle, then the fat around the area is used to produce the energy needed for the movement.
Unfortunately this is not the way it works!
If only it was that simple!!
Let’s briefly look at why we burn fat from the whole body:
When we need to complete a movement… say climbing a set of stairs
— We use glucose (carbohydrate) as our first pick to create/fuel a muscular contraction/movement.
— This glucose is either floating in blood stream or the liver (which stores glucose) gradually releases it into the blood stream.
— Once the glucose runs out, we tap into our fat source by way of a signal from the brain. This results in a release of triglycerides.
— This literally breaks up the fat cell (triglyceride) into a fatty acid and a glycerol molecule. The fatty acid the travels through the circulatory system, to the heart, liver and /or lungs (if blood has time to be oxygenated).
— From there it heads to the working muscles where it goes through a process to release the energy to make movement
— No matter which muscle needs the fuel, the molecules (fats, carbohydrates or proteins) travel around the circulatory system.
So all in all, it is not as easy as grabbing a fat cell from the specific muscle and using it’s energy. It is essentially easier and more efficient to steal those fatty acids from everywhere. We can’t choose where we lose our fat from. Sorry guys!
There is research to back up this idea.
In 1984, a study found that a sit-up program does not preferentially reduce fat cell size or fat thickness in the abdominal region in comparison to other body sites. In 2007, another study determined that an upper-body program resulted in a generalized loss of fat mass rather than specifically the upper-body. Finally in 2013, it was found that training a single leg was effective in reducing fat mass but not specifically in the trained limb. This was determined using a whole body DEXA scan, which is the current gold standard for determining fat mass.
So what helps reduce waist circumference (fat mass)?
From that exact research gives us a clue. Each of those studies looked at a different body part (arms, abdominals and legs) and all had an effect on the bodies fat mass. So, if we completed a whole-body strength program we would see an effect over the whole body. Whilst getting stronger overall in the process.
It is a win-win!
Furthermore, from an energy balance perspective, completing exercises incorporating large muscle groups in big compound exercises creates greater energy deficit. These are exercises such as the squat, deadlift, bench press and rows. Why?
The more muscles used in one movement, the more fuel (fat/glucose) it needs. Just doing a sit-up, which works abdominals, look at a squat which can use legs, glutes, abdominals etc. You will also produce less fatigue and therefore complete more exercises by looking at a whole body approach. So rather than looking at 1-2 abdominal exercises to lose weight, try variety. We encourage clients to complete aerobic exercise, some resistance training and any incidental activity your heart desires. Plus think about the quality and quantity of food and drink you consume (but that’s another story).
Most importantly, stop getting fooled by those marketing departments. Also throw out that ab-cruncher that is collecting dust under your bed! Please!
For many of us I am sure we associate exercise with a certain location or facility such as the gym, netball court, footy oval, usual running or walking loop, or community pool. We develop a relationship in our mind between exercise and the need to go to a particular place for certain amount of time in order to for it to be worth our while.
I worked with a client last year who was seeing me regularly for exercise sessions. She suffered from multiple sclerosis and found general day to day life challenging however she was determined to maintain her function to the best of her ability. Each time she would leave the gym after her sessions she would say ‘goodbye, I am going to my world gym now’. It always made me think of how true it was that for her, negotiating the terrain of the Adelaide landscape, roads, curbs, stairs, uneven surfaces, was the best possible way for her to challenge her abilities and maintain her function and fitness. She had a gym at her fingertips all day long, and the fact is, so do the rest of us!
Although I am the first one to vouch for the importance of supervised tailored exercise, stories like this make me wonder how many of us are neglecting the opportunities we have day to day in our usual routine of work, home life and leisure time to challenge ourselves and work towards our goals.
Take a look at your ‘World Gym’ today and see what opportunities you might be missing. Can you be inventive?