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Why exercise is good for stress 

 •  • by Paul Ingraham

Weekly nuggets of pain science news and insight, usually 100-300 words, with the occasional longer post. The blog is the “director’s commentary” on the core content of PainScience.com: a library of major articles and books about common painful problems and popular treatments. See the blog archives or updates for the whole site.

I’ve been writing a lot lately: twenty-seven days of January so far, and twenty-seven updates to PainScience.com so far this year. The most interesting of the lot was an update to my stress/anxiety article directly inspired by Robert Sapolsky’s excellent book about the biology of stress, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.

Exercising for stress relief isn’t fully satisfying for many people, and often downright awkward for people in pain. Neverthless, “blowing off steam” is still one the best methods of stress relief available to us, and it’s firmly grounded in biology and science. There’s a simple and fascinating reason why it works, which is well worth understanding. Basically, exercise simulates our reaction to a stressful emergency, which also triggers the relaxation and recovery mode that follows. Dr. Sapolsky:

The stress-response is about preparing your body for an explosive burst of energy consumption right now; psychological stress is about doing all the same things to your body for no physical reason whatsoever. Exercise finally provides your body for the outlet that it was preparing for.

Robert M Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, 2004, p. 255.

I think this is one of those really great little “user’s manual” things to understand about our own nature. The biology of stress is all about mobilizing biological resources for intense, life-saving activity, like running like hell from a predator, or (eek) fighting one. The curse of being human is that the same emergency biology can be triggered by abstract concerns, no predators required. But stress and anxiety are still preparing us for an emergency. So act like there’s an emergency! Do what your body is expecting — sprint a block or two, or whatever intense activity your body can manage — and then ride the wave of post-panic relaxation.

This is why exercise is an effective outlet for frustration, which is well-known to measurably reduce stress.

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