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Effects of Exercise on Stress, Health, and Aging

It’s no surprise that modern life can be stressful. Many of us work too many hours in the day, too many days in a week, often in high-stress environments where we’re pulled in multiple directions, expected to multitask constantly (which has been shown to possibly lead to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s); we stuff down whatever we can for lunch (often fast food or less than healthy options) or skip lunch all together, and the worst part about it is that so often we spend hours sitting at a desk in a more or less sedentary position. At the end of the day, we’re exhausted, cranky, and often discouraged. Our bodies feel like fudge; we’re often sore and weak, and we feel like we’ve struggled all day to accomplish very little and will have to struggle again tomorrow, and the day after, and for possibly the next few decades. We trudge to a crowded subway train and/or sit in traffic to get home and deal with family members who’ve often had equally lousy days, who can often add to our stress because of the responsibilities we feel for them and the fact that our lives seem to be slipping away while we’re stuck in frustrating jobs. Then, to go to sleep, we often need sleeping pills because we’re so wound-up that we can’t sleep any other way; otherwise, we lie awake worrying from stress, which means we reenter the stressful environment already exhausted. We may feel physically poor, our health may suffer, and we may even begin to look older and worn out. We tell ourselves we’ll go to the gym tomorrow, but who has the time or the energy? And when we’re caught in the cycle of this sedentary, stressful lifestyle, we often feel that we’re not up to exercising. But it turns out that exercise can have some surprising effects on stress, health, and even on aging. Studies have shown that regular exercise can reduce stress and increase health benefits. It can even combat some of the symptoms of aging. As little as fourteen minutes a day of regular, aerobic exercise (the kind that gets the heart pounding and the body sweating) can do the trick as long as it’s done as little as three days in a row. So isn’t it time we found the time to hit the gym?

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It’s easy to imagine how a punching bag can reduce stress, especially with pictures of certain people’s faces taped to it, but you don’t need to go to that extreme (though who can argue if it works?). Spending as little as fourteen minutes a day on a treadmill or cross trainer or any kind of aerobic exercise, even taking a brisk walk for a mile and a half, can help reduce stress tremendously by flooding the body with endorphins like dopamine and serotonin, which sooth the body. These are the same endorphins we feel when we laugh, feel love, or orgasm. One of the worst parts of stress is that we keep revisiting the things that cause our stress and reliving them over and over. Another way exercise helps reduce stress is by altering the blood flow to the areas in the brain responsible for us ruminating on stressful thoughts, i.e. worrying. So exercise takes our minds off the things we’re so stressed out about. Getting that blood flowing is a good thing for several reasons. The increased blood flow and increased production of soothing endorphins in the brain can help us react to stress in a more positive way, so instead of getting angry or shutting down, which will just lead to more stress, with vigorous, regular exercise, we’re often more alert and better able to come up with solutions to problems we might not have seen when we were trapped in that sedentary downward spiral. So exercise not only takes away the effects of stress, it can actually help us prevent stress.

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Exercise is also beneficial to health in all sorts of great ways. The most obvious benefits are that exercise can reduce obesity, which puts less long-term strain on the system, especially the heart. Many people who lead sedentary lifestyles gain weight because they aren’t burning off the calories they absorb, or they may eat junk food or comfort foods in order to comfort themselves in the face of their stress. Another benefit is that exercise gets blood pumping which helps nourish the cells and organs, helps the lungs work, and helps keep a steady flow of oxygen to the brain, which helps us think more clearly and problem solve in the future. There is evidence that regular, aerobic exercise reduces the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke, among other things. Chronic stress can lead to more than just poor health; it can lead to chronic psychological disabilities such as depression. Regular, vigorous exercise has been shown to reduce depression, not just because exercise floods the brain with positive endorphins, but because it’s often a big boost to self-esteem to look great! There is also often a social aspect to exercise; many exercises involve playing sports or going to gyms where there are other people, and the social interaction can also be beneficial to mental health as well as a stress reduction. We might make new friends and establish new routines that can greatly help with stress. Another thing to consider is that stress actually floods our bodies with chemicals like adrenalin and often puts us in “flight or fight” modes, but regular, aerobic exercise burns off these chemicals and helps moderate moods. Stress also causes the hippocampus in the brain to atrophy, which means memory can be difficult (which can lead to more stress). Exercise helps ameliorate this affect and actually has the opposite effect, increasing memory and cognitive function. So stress helps combat the effects of stress and also helps the systems of the body communicate more effectively and efficiently.

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Regular exercise has even been shown to reduce the signs of aging. According to a study from the University of California, San Francisco, done in 2010, women with high-stress lives who exercise regularly show fewer signs of aging on a cellular level. Exercise can help combat many of the “symptoms” of aging, such as helping to keep the heart healthy, helping maintain flexibility and skin elasticity, and combating telomere shortening. Telomeres are bits of genetic material found on the ends of chromosomes. When telomeres shorten, this is a known indicator of aging cells. Regular, vigorous exercise has been shown to limit telomere shortening, which keeps cells young and healthy. Exercise also helps reduce more superficial signs of aging caused by stress. Stress can often lead to insomnia, which causes dark circles under the eyes and can give skin a somewhat less-than-healthy pallor, but exercise can help combat insomnia and these physical effects. Other aging effects, such as drooping skin, can also be combated through exercise. On the flipside, stress can magnify all of these effects, making a person appear even more aged. And there is quite a bit of evidence that shows that a sedentary lifestyle can literally reduce lifespan, so regular, vigorous exercise isn’t only positive, it’s essential.

There are several great specific ways to combat stress through exercise. Few of us have the time to dedicate to an extended exercise session daily, but as little as thirty minutes several times a week to forty five minutes over the course of three consecutive days, or fourteen minutes a day, is enough exercise to feel many of these effects. This exercise, coupled with stress-reducing tactics such as regulated breathing can help tremendously. Another great technique is the “brain break.” These are short, less than five-minute breaks that help clear the mind. Even getting up from that desk to walk to the bathroom or walk around the building for a couple minutes can get the blood flowing enough to help reduce stress, though this isn’t enough exercise to lead to all the benefits described above. A regular, scheduled exercise regimen can give a stressed out person something to look forward to. The exercise itself acts as a kind of meditation, as well, since it’s difficult to focus on anything other than the exercise being undergone. Exercise helps us focus on our body’s needs, as opposed to the needs of the world which can often pull us away from our bodies, and this way we can become much more comfortable with ourselves, which helps us ignore the deleterious effects of stress. A regimented exercise schedule offers us clear milestones and signs of success; we can accomplish difficult goals through clearly defined work and see the results, often more quickly than we might have expected. On a more psychological level, the idea of making time for oneself to focus on one’s health can have a profound physical effect and make us feel so much better that stress can seem to just melt away.

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