Exercise for Stress Management & Improved Digestion

Stress Sucks!

Stress is a major threat to one’s health and happiness. 

Mental stress, whether the source is work, school, or your relationships, contributes to early mortality and increased risks of heart disease and cancers (Front Psychiatry, 2022). In addition to shortening life, stress deeply interferes with one’s quality of life in all manner of ways, threatening physical and mental health. In terms of mental health, stress manifests as anxiety and depression.  

Stress and Digestion

Stress is also related to gastrointestinal issues, including acid reflux (Minerva Gastroenterol Dietol, 2017). In its simplest essence, experiencing stress triggers the nervous system to enter a sympathetic-dominant state, or a fight-or-flight response. In this condition, blood flow and muscle activity in the gastrointestinal tract is reduced. Prolonged exposure to this state of stress can result in bloating, cramping, and diarrhea.

There is also some question of a chicken vs. egg relationship between GI function and stress: stress can increase GI upset, but as a recent Foodguides.com article noted, an unhealthy gut microbiome can actually lead impairments in mental health, namely higher levels of anxiety and depression as well!  

Exercise as a Stress Reliever

So what can one do? One of the most effective stress-management strategies appears to be regular exercise. We all know exercise does wonders for our heart and our muscles. But an often-overlooked benefit of exercise is that it is one of the most healthful things you can do for your brain. From an evolutionary standpoint, the brain is designed to guide movement. Think about it: living things that don’t move (i.e. plants, sessile animals like sponges) generally don’t have brains. Living things that move have much more sophisticated nervous systems, often including a brain. So, one can reasonably state that the brain is an integral organ for movement. 

Every time we exercise, rapid changes occur within our bodies that create a healthful environment for our brains. Increased circulation and oxygen delivery, coupled with the release of growth-promoting factors from nerve cells, such as vascular endothelial growth factor 1 and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) result in an increased nutrient delivery to our brain cells. Dr. John Ratey, psychiatrist and expert on the science of exercise and brain health (and author of the excellent book on this topic, Spark), likens the effect of BDNF to Miracle-Gro for the brain. 

So exercise is good for the brain. What are the measurable effects of regular exercise? Clinical trials support the use of exercise as a means to reduce anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (Annu Rev Med, 2021). Higher levels of aerobic fitness have also been correlated to a greater diversity in the gut microbiome, which should relate to both healthier digestion and improved mental health (Nutrients, 2022)

How much exercise do you need to boost your mood? 

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends accumulating 30 or more minutes of physical activity on 5 or more days a week as threshold for reducing risks of most chronic/lifestyle-related diseases below that of sedentary people (Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2011). So aiming for 30 minutes a day, most days of the week is probably a good starting point if you are not currently a regular exerciser. How you choose to move should be entirely up to you – my personal advice is to find ways to move that you love. Look at exercise as play time – like recess period back when you were a kid. That mindset should help with both enjoyment and adherence.

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