When life gets crazy, some people retreat into their running. Others take the opposite approach—they put running on the back burner to devote all their time and mental energy to the current crisis. Research on exercise and stress is firmly in favour of the first camp. It found that staying active during work crunches, family emergencies, relationship troubles, and the like will help you experience the stressors less severely and survive the situation in better physical and mental health.
Research in lab settings has found reduced emotional reaction to artificially induced stress after people exercise. For example, in a University of Maryland study, people who looked at unpleasant images 15 minutes after a half-hour workout showed lower levels of anxiety than people who looked at the images after sitting quietly for 30 minutes. Of course, runners have long intuited the value of maintaining some semblance of routine during hectic times. Doing so usually provides a short respite from your worries, gives you a focused opportunity to think through things, and helps you feel like you haven’t lost complete control of your life.
What’s significant about this new research is that it compared people’s activity levels to their recall of real-world stressors and confirmed that getting out the door on tough days is key to those days not seeming as bad.
The research, published in Health Psychology, had more than 2,000 adults track their exercise and recall stressful life situations for eight consecutive days. The daily-life events included arguments with others, avoiding arguments with others, discrimination, stress at work, home, or school, and stress involving a family member or close friend. The researchers did two key sorts on the data they collected: first, between generally underactive people and regular exercisers; and second, between how people recalled their stress levels on days they exercised and days when they didn’t.
Specifically, the researchers measured what’s known as “negative affect reactivity,” or how you emotionally experience unpleasant events. Having low negative affect is roughly akin to emotional stability; you experience unpleasant situations but aren’t overwhelmed by them. Low negative affect is good not only in the moment—your day isn’t ruined because your boss yelled at you—but also long-term, because you’re less likely to suffer the health consequences of frequent swings in your blood pressure and stress-hormone levels. To capture which subjects had low negative affect in response to stressful events, the researchers had them rate the degree (from “not at all” to “all the time”) to which a stressor made them feel angry, sad, shameful, nervous, or anxious.
There was no difference between how often active and less-active subjects had stressful days. What was different was that, on high-stress days, the regular exercisers’ negative affect was 14 percent lower than that of the other subjects. That is, the same sorts of bad things happened, but the exercisers were significantly less rankled by them. Eli Puterman, Ph.D., the lead researcher and a professor of kinesiology at the University of British Columbia, said that exercisers’ edge in this matter is probably a combination of reacting less severely as the stressor is happening and not remembering the stress as severe at the end of the day.
“We are constantly rewriting our memories, so of course, if exercise makes me happy or calm more often, I might interpret the stressor as less impactful as it’s happening but I might also recall it later as less stressful,” he wrote in an email.
Indeed, there’s growing consensus that, as a review of research published in Clinical Psychology Review put it, ‘exercise training recruits a process which confers enduring resilience to stress.’ This phenomenon is thought to be related to structural brain changes, such as the growth of and better connection between neurons, caused by running and other forms of aerobic exercise.
So, as a runner, you’re better equipped to survive high-stress times. Still, on any given stressful day (no matter how severe), you should still try to get out for a run. The researchers found that the subjects’ negative affect was 17 percent lower on days when they worked out. And this finding comes with a special gold star for regular exercisers: They got that benefit regardless of when they worked out. The less-active people, in contrast, got the biggest boost in handling stress if an event happened soon after a workout, then saw their emotional stability dissipate as more time passed since exercising.
The takeaway: make that much more of an effort to find time to run when you know it’s going to be a stressful day.’“My best advice is to schedule workouts, because when you’re stressed, it’s really difficult to feel that you have the time or energy to work out,’ Puterman said. It doesn’t have to be a long or hard run—a few easy miles at a conversational pace will do the trick. Consider that time your secret weapon in handling whatever life throws at you that day.
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