How to Overcome the Health Effects of Stress

Have you ever had to run for your life from a saber-tooth tiger? If you find yourself in that situation count yourself lucky for your fight or flight response. It evolved in human beings over tens of thousands of years and give us increased strength and alertness to overcome the occasional saber-tooth or other physical threat to our lives. The problem is that modern Canadians, unlike our ancient ancestors, are not given a chance to let our response system turn off. We’re continuously stressed and it’s hurting us.

Canada Is Stressed Out

Stress today isn’t set off by the risk of immediate harm but by psychological threats. According to StatsCan 73% of working adults experience at “least some level of stress.” 27% of Canadians surveyed reported being highly stressed on a day to day basis. The causes are varied but can include long work hours, time pressures, lack of leisure time, relationships at work, and the organizational culture (1). Reducing stress is healthy, and doesn’t require quitting your job. Exercise counteracts many of the harmful effects of stress. Left unmanaged stress can lead to mental health issues in which the problem isn’t just one of mood, but physiology.

“When you exercise your body produces endorphins. This family of hormone creates feelings of well-being and is responsible for the runner’s high phenomenon”

Stress activates our sympathetic nervous system. This activation leads to the release of various hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that enable us to better deal with a perceived danger—like a sabertooth. Our heart and respiration rate increases. Our blood vessels dilate, and blood is shunted to the muscles of our limbs. Your body in survival mode, but this same system kicks in when we stress over everyday challenges like paying a bill or finding a new job.

This day to day use of our body's fight or flight is chronic stress. It triggers multiple inflammatory pathways which have long-established links to many health issues. These can include:

  • Heart disease (atherosclerosis)
  • Ulcers and other stomach issues
  • Back, neck and shoulder pain

One 14-year study involving over 10,000 British civil service workers discovered a dose-response relationship between work stress and the risk of metabolic syndrome. These are a list of symptoms (2) that include high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels.

These factors put stressed workers in the study at an increased risk for diabetes, heart attack, and stroke. Though, unfortunately, these are not the only negative impacts of chronic stress.

Stress and Performance

The kinesiologists here at Symmetrix focus on recovery and injury prevention. So although we wish it weren’t true, chronic stress can also have adverse effects in these areas as well. At least three studies have shown that stress impedes recovery and can even increase your risk of injury.

A study published in 2016 looked at 101 players in a division 1 college football team in the United States. Statistical analysis showed that the athletes were twice as likely to sustain a performance restricting injury (of which there were 86 in the school year!) during periods of high academic stress (3).

Another study saw similar effects in 138 recreational and competitive German athletes (4). Each was given a stress recovery questionnaires at the start of the study and its conclusion 6 months later. Through multiple regression analysis aimed at removing confounding variables, researchers were able to link psychological stress and the chronification of lower back pain.

For those of us who aren’t professional athletes, the harmful effects of stress still hold. A one year study on workplace wellness found three main predictors of future back pain in 669 healthy office workers. The first was an existing history of back pain. A second was their frequency of rest. The last predictor was, you guessed it, psychological stress. In fact, stress was found to have a direct effect on lower back pain. For anyone concerned about corporate wellness these numbers should be concerning.

What’s Can You Do?

Plato thought that “Exercise would cure a guilty conscience.” If by guilty conscience he meant stress, then we couldn’t agree more.

Symmetrix - How to overcome stress with exercise

As personal trainers in Yaletown, we've been privileged to help our clients in the use of exercise to combat the results of stress. In addition to Plato, much more recent statements from the Mayo Clinic and other medical institutions have connected exercise to a reduction in stress. This reduction occurs through measurable biological processes as well as other, more psychological, ones.

When you exercise your body produces many hormones, one type is a group called endorphins. This family of hormone creates feelings of well-being and is responsible for the runner’s high phenomenon. Endorphins combat stress and your body’s production of them spikes when you exercise. It has a cumulative effect, however, so that the more you exercise the longer lasting those feelings of well being.

When you’re stressed your body also produces the hormones norepinephrine and cortisol. These neurotransmitters essentially rev up your engine in the face of a threat. When released constantly by chronic stress they can cause health problems, but not so when you exercise. When you work out regularly, your body learns to better manage its cortisol, and better regulate its release of norepinephrine.

On a more psychological level, exercise gets your mind off stressful situations. When we work with clients, we make sure their focus is on the movement at hand, not on their stressors. Also, regular exercise, and it’s positive effects on your appearance, helps boost confidence. A positive self-image is a sure way to fight stress.

With Our Help, You Can Reduce Stress

Mental health isn’t confined to your mood but affects the rest of your body in complex and harmful ways. If you need support in developing a training, exercise, and nutrition plan to help reduce stress contact Symmetrix, your personal trainer in Yaletown. Together we can get you to a happier, healthier life.

1 Michie S. Causes and Management of Stress at Work Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2002;59:67-72.

2 Chronic stress at work and the metabolic syndrome: prospective study BMJ 2006; 332:521

3 Mann JB, Bryant KR, Johnstone B, Ivey PA, Sayers SP. January 2016. Effect of physical and academic stress on illness and injury in division 1 college football players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. [accessed 2019 Feb. 27]. Volume 30 (Issue 1)

4 Heidaria J, Mierswaa T, Kleinertb J, Ottb I, Levenigc C, Hasenbringc M, Kellmann M, March 11, 2016. Parameters of Low Back Pain Chronicity Among Athletes. ScienceDirect. [accessed 2019 Feb. 27]

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I have an injury from right leg knee cap to my back on my right side that I have been struggling with since 2017. I am now able to do some running and have definitely gotten a lot stronger and more resilient. Symmetrix has been amazing.

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