Stop Stress for Good: Exercise to Fight Stress
The Power of Exercise
The power of exercise to protect against stress is encouraging news for women, who are more likely than men to experience certain harmful health side effects from feeling chronically maxed out, including a higher risk of depression and autoimmune diseases. Moreover, scientists at the Connors Center have discovered that anxiety-inducing situations can actually lead to different hormonal changes in women's brains than in men's.
Yet while they're more susceptible to stress on the one hand, women also appear to have a unique, built-in ability to alter their stress response. When scientists monitored the brain activity of a group of healthy men and women looking at disturbing images, women at the beginning of their menstrual cycle showed an emotional reaction similar to men's, but a lower stress response during ovulation. "Women are endowed with a natural hormonal capacity to regulate the stress response," says Goldstein, lead author of the study.
Tapping into that natural capacity, more and more research suggests, begins with regular exercise. When Pamela Epstein, a 25-year-old account manager at a public relations firm in New York City and self-described "perfectionist," ended a six-year relationship last fall while simultaneously starting a new job, she felt her stress levels soar sky-high and stay there. Suddenly living on her own for the first time, Pamela worried about making ends meet, carving out a new social life, and keeping up at work. She began seeing a therapist, who prescribed antianxiety meds but also insisted that Pamela start following a regular exercise regimen that would include at least an hour of cardio three times a week. "He said the medication might make me feel better but that, in the long run, keeping my body in the best physical shape possible would help protect me from stress in my life," Pamela says. "And he's right; after my workout, I always feel so much more relaxed."
In a study from Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, doctors put patients who had been diagnosed as clinically depressed on an exercise regimen. After four months of consistently working out three times a week, researchers found a significant improvement in 45 percent of people who had been previously diagnosed with major depression.
"Exercise is like free medicine," says Robert Leahy, PhD, director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy and author of Beat the Blues Before They Beat You. "Medication may work more rapidly to lessen the symptoms of depression or stressed feelings, but the effects of regular exercise are longer lasting."
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