Chronic stress and physical activity
What is chronic stress?
Stress is characterized by a state of preparedness observed at physiological, psychological and behavioural levels. Stress can be therefore considered as the body’s alarm and is a survival reaction (1). Indeed, in order to be able to deal with potential threats, the body releases hormones that help mobilize energy and enter in a state of stress (1). The reactions vary among individuals but the main symptoms involve a physiological response (increase in heart rate, hyperventilation or high blood pressure), a cognitive response (reduction of attention, perception or forgetfulness), an emotional response (being irritated or nervous) and behavioural reactions (harshness, impulsivity or making mistakes) (2, 3). When stress is finally relieved, balance is restored to go back to the rest state. Chronic stress occurs when the previously described stress symptoms become a continuing problem, the body is constantly in a state of stress and fails to achieve resting state. Chronic stress mainly develops when everyday stressors are ignored or poorly managed but also when a traumatic event occurs (4).
What are the effects of physical activity on chronic stress?
Physical activity has a positive effect on physiological, cognitive and emotional responses induced by chronic stress and may therefore prevent, treat or manage stress-related conditions such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes or depression (anhedonia, culpability, emotional instability, isolation, pessimism) (1,3). Indeed, regular physical activity may limit the increase in heart rate and blood pressure during stressful events by lowering their thresholds at the resting state. Consequently, it contributes to reducing overall stress effects on the body (1). In addition, aerobic and resistance exercises improve the selective attention and increase the brain’s ability to solve conflicts (9) which are known to be challenged in the case of stressful events. Physical activity enhances the mood and increases positivity and psychological well-being (5,6) which can be maintained over time and provides benefits during stressful situations. During training sessions, realistic expectations and motivating factors can moreover positively affect well-being and subjective health regardless of the type of exercise and its duration or intensity(1,7,8).
What are the risks?
Engaging in physical activity always bears the potential risk of musculoskeletal injuries. Moreover, physical activity that is perceived as imposed would not result in the expected well-being effects, especially in patients with chronic stress. Indeed, physical activity can also increase stress if the training is perceived negatively such as when coaches or relatives put unnecessary pressure on the participant (1). As a result, sport could become a stress factor.
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- Garber CE, Blissmer B, Deschenes MR, Franklin BA, Lamonte MJ, Lee I-M, et al. Quantity and Quality of Exercise for Developing and Maintaining Cardiorespiratory, Musculoskeletal, and Neuromotor Fitness in Apparently Healthy Adults: Guidance for Prescribing Exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc [Internet]. juill 2011 [cité 1 févr 2018];43(7):1334‑59. Disponible sur: http://content.wkhealth.com/linkback/openurl?sid=WKPTLP:landingpage&an=00005768-201107000-00026.
Authors & Experts
Experts : Laurent Le Saint6, Lidwine Wouters6.
1 Luxembourg Institute of Health, Epidemiology and Public Health Research Unit, L-1445 Strassen, Luxembourg
2 Luxembourg Institute of Health, Sports Medicine Research Laboratory, L-1460 Luxembourg, Luxembourg
3 Fédération Luxembourgeoise des Associations de Sport de Santé
4 School of Psychiatry, University of New South Wales, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
5 Black Dog Institute, Sydney, Australia
6 Centre Hospitalier de Luxembourg, Psychiatrie - Clinique des Troubles Emotionnels, L-1210 Luxembourg, Luxembourg