Stress: the current state of post-secondary students as the semester draws to a close. Final projects, papers and exams have us all pulling our hair out. Coffee soon replaces sleep and we literally start to turn into “book zombies”. During the last month of my degree I was shamelessly drinking 2 to 3 cups of coffee a day and was lucky to get 6 hours of sleep a night. I slowly turned into an academic monster and anyone who did anything to interrupt my flow of thought was going to be subject to my wrath. And by that I mean shooting menacing glares at the person eating baby carrots while studying next to me in the library. Despite only taking two classes in my final semester, I was working more than I ever had before and was feeling the stress of trying to balance school, two jobs, a practicum and any semblance of a social life. Yes, times were tough and not only was my mental sanity suffering, so was my body.. After finals were done, I started to get back into a regular gym routine; it was then that it clicked for me. My last semester was the only semester that I had not regularly exercised. From swimming upward of nine times a week and training for triathlons, my physical wellbeing has always been a top priority. I put my fitness routine on the backburner so I could focus on school. In retrospect, I think abandoning my exercise routine hindered rather than helped me. Was the extra study time really worth turning into an irritable savage who was ready to toss “buddy`s” computer over the edge of the railing from the second floor of the library at the sound of him eating baby carrots? In the end, I honestly cannot say I used the extra bit of time effectively. I was so high strung that I couldn’t focus on what I was reading and writing. When I made a simple mistake, I would burst into tears of frustration. Without even realising it, I had taken exercise, a natural de-stressor and a time to focus on myself, out of my life. Wait a second… exercise can actually reduce stress? Yes! In fact, there is a ton of research and evidence to prove that physical activity is an effective method for reducing stress. Just ask any regular fitness fanatic what they do when life gets a little overwhelming. I bet most of them answer with some kind of physical activity.
How does stress affect the body?
Acute stress is short-term in nature and can be brought on by things such as meeting a deadline, cramming for an exam, and avoiding an accident. The release of stress hormones (adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol) causes the heart to speed up and pump harder. Furthermore, the blood vessels dilate causing an increase in blood flow to the muscles and an elevation in blood pressure. Stress causes the muscles in the body to tense up as a protective response to help guard the body against potential injury. Prolonged stress can lead to more long-term cardiovascular problems. It can cause inflammation in the arteries that can lead to heart disease as well as other cardiovascular diseases.
How does exercise help with stress?
I’ve never heard anyone describe voluntary exercise as stressful; however, exercise shares several characteristics with acute stressors requiring the body to make the same adaptations to bring it back to a normal resting state, which is called homeostasis. In fact, I bet most people would describe exercise as rewarding and mood-enhancing. I’m sure some of you will be familiar with Elle Woods quote from Legally Blonde “Exercise releases endorphins and endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t kill their husbands”. In fact, regular exercise has been shown to buffer the damaging effects attributed to long-term stress. The virtually harmless nature of exercise makes it a safe approach to disrupting homeostasis. Constant application of exercise, a safe stressor, can increase the bodies’ tolerance to other stressors, like an approaching exam.
As little as 30 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise has been shown to reduce cortisol levels in response to induced psychologic stress (Zschucke et al. 2014). Additionally, a study conducted used 61 randomized inactive students who were placed into either a control and intervention group. The students in the intervention group were given a 20 week aerobic training programme while the control group continued with no lifestyle changes. The post-intervention assessment was scheduled during a real-life stressor period as it was conducted during the student’s final exams(Harren,B. et al, 2015). The results showed that compared to the control group, the intervention group that engaged in exercise showed lower emotional stress reactivity. So at the end of the day, exercise builds our body’s tolerance to high pressure situations and makes us better equipped to handle the stressful events such as exams! Not only that, exercise gives us time to refocus our energy on ourselves, so when it comes time to put in the work we can do so effectively and efficiently, making the most of our study time.
Conn, V.S. (2010) Anxiety outcomes after physical activity interventions. Lippincott Williams and Wilkins. 59 (3), 224-231.
Harren, B., Haertel, S., Stumpp, J., Hey, S., Ebner-Priemer, U. (2015) Reduced emotional stress reactivity to a real-life academic examination stressor in students participating in a 20-week aerobic exercise training: A randomised controlled trial using ambulatory assessment. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 20, 67-75.
Zschucke, E., Renneberg, B., Dimeo, F., Wustenberg, T., Strohle, A. (2015) The stress-buffering effect of acute exercise: Evidence for HPA axis negative feedback. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 51, 414-425.