Updated 09 September 2014

The real benefits of exercise

Exercise is one of the most profound and effective ways of managing stress and new research shows it can actually reorganise the brain so that it is more resilient to stress.

How do you cope with stress? Many of us immediately think of taking a pill to calm our over-anxious minds when perhaps we should be looking for the solution somewhere else, suggests South African Society of Physiotherapy (SASP) president Dr Linda Steyn.

She is encouraging South Africans to get moving for wellbeing this National Physiotherapy BackWeek from 8-14 September 2014.

“Exercise is one of the most profound and effective ways of managing stress,” she says. “In fact, research published last year shows that exercise actually reorganizes the brain so that it is more resilient to stress.”1

Read: Exercise helps brain cope with stress

Most of us know about the ‘happy hormones’, the endorphins that are famously produced while someone is running, swimming or doing some other form of aerobic exercise. And while they matter, it turns out they’re not the only reason exercise helps you to manage stress.

“Biologically, exercise seems to give the body a chance to practise dealing with stress,” according to the American Psychological Association.

Read: Fit body, fit mind

It forces the body’s physiological systems – all of which are involved in the stress response – to communicate much more closely than usual: The cardiovascular system communicates with the renal system, which communicates with the muscular system.

And all of these are controlled by the central and sympathetic nervous systems, which also must communicate with each other. This workout of the body’s communication system may be the true value of exercise; the more sedentary we get, the less efficient our bodies in responding to stress.”2

This is true even for our children, says Dr Steyn, who face increasingly stressful lives with ever less place for physical activity.

“Research has shown that when they are exposed to everyday stressors, sedentary children’s bodies produced a rush of cortisol – a hormone linked to stress.

But in similar situations, physically active children had little or no increase in their cortisol levels.”3

ReadObese kids have higher levels of stress hormone

Regular exercise, according to research done a few years ago in South Africa, “was associated with significant improvements in total well-being score and especially in the well-being components of mood, sense of coherence, fortitude, stress and coping”.4

And here’s the good news: “You don’t have to go wild in the gym or do extreme sports to tap into your natural resilience,” says Dr Steyn.

“You can earn your dose of mental wellbeing by simply going for a 30-minute walk every day.”

If you have any stiffness, joint pain or other musculoskeletal problems, consult a physiotherapist before you start exercising.

Tip: Many physios will be offering free assessments during National Physiotherapy BackWeek that runs from 8 - 14 September. For more info contact the SASP on 011 615 3170.

Read more:

How to gently start an exercise regime
Exercises that improve back pain
What exactly can a physiotherapist do for you?

References: 1. Physical Exercise Prevents Stress-Induced Activation of Granule Neurons and Enhances Local Inhibitory Mechanisms in the Dentate Gyrus, May 1 Journal of Neuroscience.
3. Higher Levels of Physical Activity are Associated with Lower Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenocortical Axis Reactivity to Psychosocial Stress in Children, April 2013 issue of JCEM.
4. Physical Exercise and Psychological Well-Being, Steve Edwards South African Journal of Psychology, June 2006 vol. 36 no. 2 357-373

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